SWIETOSZOW, Poland — One by one, Leopard tanks crewed by Ukrainian troops and their Polish instructors zipped up a muddy field, bouncing over deep ruts and cresting a low dirt berm. They stopped, fired a smoke grenade, then raced back in reverse to their starting points.
The demonstration on Monday, for President Andrzej Duda of Poland and his defense minister, was the first since Ukrainian troops began training on the Leopard 2A4 tanks after being promised them by Western allies nearly three weeks ago. With a massive Russian operation already mounting in Ukraine’s east and south, officials said they had compressed the tutelage of operating and maintaining the war machines into a couple of months — a process that usually takes up to a year.
Ukraine’s leaders and their NATO backers hope the tanks will be a crucial part of a campaign to push Russian forces out of small cities and towns where the fighting has been centered in recent weeks. The Leopards, which move as swiftly backward as they do forward, are particularly useful for urban combat.
Ukrainian Maj. Vadym Khodak, 57, said he and his fellow soldiers had been pulled off the front lines in Donetsk and Luhansk, the provinces that make up the heavily contested Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, and given three days to report to this drab Polish base near the German border.
“These tanks will be a great support for our army,” said Major Khodak, who had been long retired from Ukraine’s army when Russia invaded a year ago but immediately volunteered to rejoin. “Using them in combat conditions will have a great effect.”
The State of the War
- Free Russia Legion: Russian soldiers repelled by President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine have taken arms against their home country — and they’re engaged in some of the war’s most heated fighting.
- In the East: The Wagner private military company said its fighters had seized a village outside Bakhmut, as Moscow’s forces continue a brutal campaign that has nearly encircled the strategic city.
- Wagner’s Founder: Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the once secretive tycoon who has Mr. Putin’s support, is confounding Moscow’s Kremlin-allied elite by starting to dabble in politics alongside waging war in Ukraine.
- Russian Aerial Barrage: Ukrainian utility crews were working to repair new and significant damage to the country’s energy grid, officials said, after Russia unleashed a major wave of missiles and attack drones.
He said he and the other Ukrainian troops already had experience on tanks, but not on equipment as advanced as the Leopards. Mostly, they have used the Soviet-era machinery that has made up Kyiv’s military fleet and are being destroyed in the ongoing combat.
“At the moment, we are very short of armored vehicles and I hope that when we get to the front line with this equipment, it will save a lot of lives of our soldiers and bring us closer to victory,” Major Khodak said.
Monday’s demonstration in Poland came on the same day that another group of Ukrainian troops began their training on Leopard 2 tanks in Germany. Still another group is also being trained on British-made Challenger 2 tanks in the United Kingdom.
But Monday’s brief public event was the first to showcase the process in what has increasingly become a race within NATO to demonstrate support for Ukraine — and, in doing so, pressure more cautious states into stepping up.
“These modern weapons, we hope, will help them defeat the enemy far more efficiently than has been the case so far,” Mr. Duda said.
Poland had long leaned on other allies to send tanks to Ukraine, ultimately wearing down resistance from the United States and Germany, where leaders worried about the possibility of further escalating the conflict. Although Britain was the first to commit to sending 14 of its Challenger 2s, Poland and a half-dozen other countries had by then been pushing Berlin to allow them to re-export their own German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
That decision came in late January, only after the Biden administration also agreed to send 31 American-made tanks to match Germany’s pledge of sending 14 Leopards 2 of its stockpile. The Germans later agreed to also send as many as 88 of their older Leopard 1 tanks.
Mr. Duda said the donations were necessary “so that Ukraine can counter the Russian onslaught with modern tanks in the standard adopted by the North Atlantic Alliance — much more modern than what it had so far.”