Kiev has deployed German-made tanks against Russian positions in southeastern Ukraine, launching the first heavily armored attacks of its long-awaited counter-offensive.
Two military personnel, two Western officials in Kiev and military analysts said the moves were a clear sign that, after months of preparation and training, Ukraine’s summer push to liberate occupied territory had begun in earnest.
“Based on yesterday’s action and the Western systems used, it appears that the Ukrainian offensive is underway,” said Michael Kofman, a military analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington-based think tank.
Kofman said the fighting appeared to be “along the Tokmak axis,” a strategic town in Zaporizhzhia province upstream from the Kakhovka dam, where flooding has engulfed dozens of settlements, causing a humanitarian and environmental disaster.
Ukrainian troops hope to make a breakthrough in the south and cut the “land bridge” connecting Russia to the Ukrainian provinces of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, cutting off supply lines to the Crimean peninsula, currently under Moscow’s control.
“If Ukraine breaks the Russian land bridge connecting Crimea to Russia, Moscow’s entire presence in the southeastern part of the front could collapse,” said Konrad Muzyka, director of Rochen Consulting, a Poland-based organization that has been fighting the war in Ukraine. follows.
Mikhail Barabanov, an expert at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow defense think tank, said the flood could create more favorable conditions for a Ukrainian advance.
“The Russian positions on the lower, ‘Russian’ bank of the Dnipro are flooded, and the flooding will not last long – in seven to 10 days the water will recede and the Dnipro may become shallower than before the explosion. It will help the Ukrainians get over it,” Barabanov added.
Russian forces spent months fortifying their positions with anti-tank ditches, mazes of trenches, concrete “dragon’s teeth” barricades, steel “hedgehog” obstacles, coils of barbed wire and minefields. The defenses are visible on satellite images from the Financial Times and analyzed by researchers who monitor the defensive build-up of the occupier.
Russian military bloggers yesterday filmed a video of the Ukrainian counterattack near these fortified positions and published it on Telegram on Thursday.
The footage appears to show at least two German-made Leopard 2 tanks in fierce combat against Moscow’s troops. If verified, this would be the first visual confirmation of the German tanks used on the Ukrainian battlefield.
The fight took place southeast of the Ukrainian-controlled city of Orikhiv. At least two US-produced M113 armored personnel carriers, or APCs, are also visible in the video.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry has not commented on the attack seen in the video.
While notable for its use of Western tanks and armor, some analysts think the attack may be an attempt by Ukrainian forces to test Russian defenses, with larger attacks on the horizon.
“Ukraine has so far deployed some key capabilities for the battles in Zaporizhzhia (province), such as Leopard tanks or DM53A1 tank grenades. But whether this is the main driver remains to be seen,” says Muzyka van Rochen.
Ukrainian military officials repeatedly stated that there would be no grand announcement of the start of the counter-offensive, with defense and military officials urging the public to keep quiet about what they might see or hear about the operation.
“No announcement will be made about the start,” Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, said on Sunday. “Words are very unnecessary. They can only do harm,” he added, citing a song by the band Depeche Mode.
The Russian drone video appears to show some Ukrainian armor destroyed in the attack, but it’s unclear if it was one of the vehicles supplied by the West.
Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, claimed on Thursday that Moscow’s troops repelled the attack in the early hours. He added that the attack involved up to 1,500 men and 150 armored vehicles and was stopped “with heavy casualties”, including the loss of 30 tanks.
The FT was unable to verify those claims, and Shoigu has made false claims in the past that have even been mocked by other Russian units and propagandists.
Muzyka noted that this was Ukraine’s third counter-offensive since August. Ukrainian forces recaptured nearly all occupied land in eastern Kharkiv province in September and the southern city of Kherson and surrounding areas in November.
Meanwhile, Russian forces “were only able to launch local and failed attacks, while Wagner captured (the cities of) Bakhmut and Soledar in the same period,” Muzyka said.
As German tanks rumbled in the south on Wednesday and Thursday, the Ukrainian army stepped up airstrikes against Russian troops further east, reportedly an industrial facility used by the Russian military as a base in Luhansk province.
A Ukrainian soldier, who asked not to be named, in accordance with military protocol when discussing developments on the battlefield, said it appeared British Storm Shadow missiles delivered to Kiev last month were used in the attack, “because the target was in range only they are able to attack”.
Ukraine’s armed forces did not immediately comment on the apparent attack. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told CNN last month that Ukraine had “successfully” used Storm Shadow missiles against Russian targets.