June 22, 2024
An American-made Abrams tank during a military training exercise in Niinisalo, Finland, in May.Credit…Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Lehtikuva, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The first American-made Abrams tanks have been delivered to Ukraine, two U.S. defense officials said, arriving months ahead of initial estimates and in time to be used in Kyiv’s counteroffensive against Russian forces.

More M1 Abrams tanks will be sent in the coming months, the officials said, noting that those that were shipped into Ukraine on Saturday represented the first of 31 that the Biden administration has promised to send. The officials would not say how many have been delivered so far.

The Abrams will be among other tanks in Ukraine’s arsenal that it could use to push into, and possibly reclaim, Russian-held territory in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, where fighting has ground on for months without major breakthroughs. But Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, has warned that the Abrams would need to be deployed “in a very tailored way, for very specific, well-crafted operations,” or risk being destroyed.

If they are simply sent to the front lines to try to punch through Russian defenses, General Budanov said last week in an interview with an American military blog, “they will not live very long on the battlefield. They need to be used in those breakthrough operations, but very well prepared.”

The two U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliveries had not been formally announced. Ukrainian officials declined to comment.

Both President Biden and the American defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, had forecast last week that the tanks would be shipped within days. Their arrival represents part of an extraordinary effort by Western allies — responding to relentless pushing from Ukraine — to deliver a powerful weapon months ahead of schedule.

Just one year ago, allies had resisted sending Western-made tanks to Ukraine, concerned that doing so would draw NATO more directly into the war and further escalate tensions with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

By January, however, convinced that Ukraine needed more heavy armored vehicles to confront Russian forces, Britain, Germany and the United States each agreed to supply the modern Western tanks or allow for them to be transferred to Kyiv. At that point, experts predicted that it could take at least a year to train enough Ukrainian forces on the sophisticated Western weapons.

U.S. troops began training Ukrainian forces in late spring, conducting an abbreviated 12-week course to operate Abrams tanks at American military bases in Germany.

The American decision to donate the Abrams tanks unlocked the transfer from European nations of several dozen German-made Leopard tanks, another sophisticated Western weapon, which Berlin had been unwilling to allow without a similar commitment from the United States. Britain delivered at least 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks in the spring.

Ukraine has said it needs at least 300 Western tanks for its counteroffensive, but it has so far received only about half that number, said Col. Markus Reisner of Austria, who is closely monitoring the war at Austria’s main military training academy.

By comparison, officials have estimated that Russia is manufacturing about 200 tanks each year.

Constant Méheut contributed reporting.

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