BRUSSELS - Since Russia’s invasion began nearly a year ago, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine implored his Western allies to send him tanks.
Now that Nato allies have agreed to his request, the major question is when those tanks will actually be deployed – and whether they will arrive in time to repel a Russian offensive expected as early as February.
The first set of tanks likely to arrive are the Challenger 2 vehicles that the British government promised in early January. The 14 tanks – enough for one Ukraine company – could be in the country as soon as late March.
But the soldiers who will use those tanks have to be trained first. Ukrainian troops arrived in the United Kingdom on Monday to begin that process, and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, in remarks to Parliament, said there were two components to their training: The operation of the tanks and using them to fight as a unit.
As to when the British-made tanks would be on the front lines, Mr Wallace gave only a broad timetable, citing the need for operational security.
“It’ll be this side of the summer or May – it’ll be probably towards Easter time,” he said, referring to the Christian festival that falls on April 9 in 2023.
Mr Zelensky has emphasised the need for weapons to arrive quickly. In his nightly address on Sunday, he said Russia aimed to drag out the war and exhaust his forces.
“We must speed up the events, speed up the supply and opening of new necessary weaponry options for Ukraine,” he said.
Mr Sonny Butterworth, a land warfare expert and senior analyst at Janes, the London-based defence intelligence firm, said Nato states that were going to train Ukrainian troops on Western tanks would likely “give them the basics” – show them how to operate systems and immediate maintenance needs.
Training for longer-term maintenance, sustainability and other care for the tanks would likely come later, he said.
“That might be something they have decided to cut out,” Mr Butterworth said.
Of the Western tanks, he said: “It seems they are trying to get them in as quickly as possible, so I imagine speed is of the essence.”
While the British Challenger 2 tanks seem poised to arrive first, some of the German-made Leopard 2 vehicles pledged by Germany and other of Ukraine’s European allies could arrive around the same time – but they may not all arrive right away.
About a half-dozen European states are in the process of preparing to donate Leopard 2 tanks from their own military stockpiles and ship them to Ukraine.
The speed at which they do so will be determined by each government, based largely on how many tanks are immediately available and how many will need to be refurbished and reprogrammed for the current fight.
Germany’s Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said last week his country was expecting its promised tanks to arrive in Ukraine in late March or early April.
The vast majority of Ukrainian troops selected to crew the Western tanks will most likely have been trained on Soviet-era tanks, which should speed up their transition to the Leopard 2 tanks. German defence officials have reportedly offered an estimate of about six weeks, with a training process to begin in early February.
The arrival of American-made M1A2 Abrams tanks, however, will almost certainly take longer.
“It is going to be not weeks, it is going to be months,” a Pentagon spokesman, Ms Sabrina Singh, said last week.
Ms Singh said that no timeline has been set up yet for training Ukrainian troops on the Abrams, but that teaching how to operate, maintain and otherwise sustain them “is going to take a very long time”.
More to the point, Ms Singh said, “we just don’t have these tanks available in excess in our US stocks, which is why it is going to take months to transfer these M1A2 Abrams to Ukraine”.
Some military experts have estimated it could take a year or even longer for the Abrams to get to the battle lines. NYTIMES