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Ukraine sends Western tanks into battle for the first time to bolster counteroffensive

Russian officials and military bloggers reported heavy fighting along the war’s southeastern front lines on Friday.
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ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Ukraine appears to have deployed Western battle tanks into combat for the first time, analysts tell NBC News, as Kyiv launches its long-awaited counteroffensive against Russian occupying forces. 

The counteroffensive has been months in the planning and Ukraine’s military has been holding back fresh troops, as well as recently supplied Western weapons, for what may be its best opportunity to make significant gains on the battlefield.

Russian officials and military bloggers reported heavy fighting along the war's southeastern front lines on Friday. Ukraine has remained officially silent on the subject, but a senior officer and a soldier near the front lines said Thursday that the wave of attacks represented a significant new push to break through Russian defenses.

And that effort appears to be bolstered by heavy armor.

Ukrainian soldiers have been training on Western weapons for months to spearhead the counteroffensive.Anatolii Stepanov / AFP - Getty Images

Two Western military analysts said that the opening stage of the counteroffensive has seen the combat debut of German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks, which were supplied to Kyiv after months of diplomatic wrangling with its NATO backers. 

Russia’s military released drone footage of what it said was an attack by Ukrainian armored units in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region in the early hours of Thursday. 

Michael Horowitz, head of intelligence at Le Beck International, a risk management consultancy, reviewed the footage and said he was confident that it showed Leopard tanks in action.

“This would be the first time Ukraine deploys Western battle tanks, which is a sure sign that this is serious,” Horowitz told NBC News.

Russia’s military claimed it destroyed three of the Ukrainian Leopards during the fighting, as well as 27 other tanks, using artillery and airstrikes. That claim could not be verified by NBC News.

Later President Vladimir Putin was quoted by the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti as saying that Ukrainian troops did not achieve their goals "thanks to the courage of Russian soldiers, the correct organization of the troops.

“It can be said for sure that the Ukrainian offensive has begun, this is evidenced by the use of strategic reserves,” Putin was quoted as saying. “Russia still lacks modern weapons, but the defense industry is developing rapidly,” he added.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s military declined to comment when asked about the Leopard tanks, in line with Kyiv’s policy of not officially commenting on the progress of the counteroffensive. 

However, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, confirmed Ukrainian forces were attacking in the Zaporizhzhia region near the small city of Orikhiv. “The enemy is actively on the defensive,” she said in a statement. 

The 60-ton Leopard 2 is made by Germany but widely used by European members of the NATO alliance. Armed with a 120-mm cannon, it can hit targets from a range of more than 3 miles and is significantly more powerful than the Soviet-era tanks previously used by Ukraine’s military. 

Ukraine Sends Western Tanks Into Battle
A Ukrainian tank fires Wednesday in Chasiv Yar, the site of fierce battles with Russian forces near the eastern city of Bakhmut. Iryna Rybakova / AP

Ukraine pleaded for Western tanks for months but was initially met with resistance from the U.S. and other NATO countries, who cited concerns about provoking Russia as well as fears of Western technology falling into Russian hands should the tanks be captured.

But in January, the U.S. and Germany struck a deal. Berlin gave its blessing for NATO partners to begin supplying Leopard tanks to Ukraine, as well as giving tanks of its own. Washington, in return, promised to give Ukraine American-made M1 Abrams tanks in the future.

The U.S. has also sent Ukraine Bradley armored fighting vehicles.

The first Leopard tanks reached Ukraine in February and were supplied by Poland, which has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest military supporters over the course of the war. 

Ahead of the counteroffensive, Western nations have focused on training Ukrainian troops in “combined arms” — the use of tanks, artillery and infantry in concert on the battlefield. Ukraine hopes the heavy tanks will allow it to punch through fortified Russian lines in the East and South.

The outcome of the counteroffensive may shape the endgame for the war. U.S. officials have said they want Ukraine to be in the strongest possible position if it eventually enters into negotiations with the Kremlin.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said his nation’s ultimate goal is to expel Russian forces from Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory, including the Crimean Peninsula and other areas under occupation since 2014. 

Speaking alongside British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at the White House on Thursday, President Joe Biden vowed to continue supplying Ukraine with military aid.

The pair "discussed our unwavering support for the people of Ukraine, who are defending themselves against the most brutal aggression we’ve seen in a long time, at the hands of Russia and Putin,” Biden said.