Rishi Sunak has pledged to send British Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, as Kyiv battles to hold onto its gains in the Donbas and Kherson regions.
The Prime Minister has agreed to immediately send a squadron of the fighting vehicles to Eastern Europe ahead of a possible escalation in fighting in March. Over the past week, Downing Street has come under pressure from MPs and former military officials to send more support to Volodymyr Zelensky.
France, Germany and the US have all pledged to send armoured vehicles to the country - although pressure has been mounting on Berlin to scale up its support even further by approving the export of its highly regarded Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv. Ukraine has said it hopes the UK’s move will force other NATO members to follow suit.
It comes as Ukraine appears to have suffered a setback in the Donbas region. Russia claims to have taken the salt mining town of Soledar - a settlement that could open the way for Vladimir Putin’s troops to renew attacks on Bakhmut and the cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.
Rishi Sunak Challenger 2 tank ‘pledge’ explained
In a move that has been confirmed by Downing Street, Rishi Sunak has approved the immediate export of Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. The Sun, which originally broke the story, quoted a Downing Street source as saying the PM “wants our action to speak louder than words”.
Several tanks are already on their way to Eastern Europe, with a total of 14 set to be given to Ukraine over the coming weeks. However, Kyiv has previously called for 300 western tanks to be delivered to help it to liberate territory held by Russian forces. At the moment, the country is using Soviet-era tanks.
The UK will also send around 30 AS90s - large, self-propelled guns that can shoot artillery at targets up to 15 miles (24km) away.
The Ukrainian military anticipates there will be an escalation in fighting in March, when weather conditions improve. Fighting has slowed in the months since Ukraine launched successful counter-offensives in its eastern and southern regions, in part because of freezing temperatures.
Sunak has informed Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky about his pledge during a call on Saturday (14 January). It follows meetings with Whitehall defence and security officials, in which the PM and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace pushed for tanks to be made available for the fight against Vladimir Putin’s forces.
A Number 10 spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister spoke to Ukrainian President Zelensky today. The leaders reflected on the current state of Russia’s war in Ukraine, with successive Ukrainian victories pushing Russian troops back and compounding their military and morale issues.
“They agreed on the need to seize on this moment with an acceleration of global military and diplomatic support to Ukraine. The Prime Minister outlined the UK’s ambition to intensify our support to Ukraine, including through the provision of Challenger 2 tanks and additional artillery systems.”
In a statement, President Zelensky thanked the UK for making a move “that will not only strengthen us on the battlefield, but also send the right signal to other partners”. Labour has also provided its “fullest backing” to the PM’s decision, saying: “Modern tanks are crucial to Ukraine’s efforts to win its battle against Russian aggression. But ministers must move beyond ad hoc announcements and set out a plan for military, economic and diplomatic support through 2023 and beyond.”
It comes after pressure was building on Downing Street to act. President Zelensky has stepped up lobbying efforts to secure more armoured vehicles in recent weeks, while Conservative backbench MPs were also urging the PM to act.
Soon after Sunak took office in October, he travelled to Kyiv for talks with his Ukrainian counterpart and pledged to continue the support provided by his predecessor Boris Johnson. But his lack of action on supplying Ukraine with tanks was criticised, with former head of the British army Lord Richard Dannatt writing in a column for the Telegraph: “The cheerleader seems to have lost her voice”.
Even though Sunak has now acted, the small number of tanks he has pledged may not appease some Conservative MPs. Before the move was announced, Tory backbencher Bob Seely told Politico that sending a small number of Challenger 2 tanks did not go far enough.
Is Europe sending Ukraine tanks?
Rishi Sunak was also under pressure because several NATO allies had already pledged to send armoured vehicles to Ukraine.
On 4 January, France said it would be providing Kyiv with AMX-10 RC ‘light tanks’, with Germany and the US releasing a joint statement soon afterwards that said they would be following suit. Berlin is providing Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicles, while the US is sending 50 Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
None of these vehicles are out-and-out battle tanks. The West has been hesitant to supply Ukraine with these heavier fighting vehicles over fears that they could lead to an escalation in the conflict, with the potential for NATO to be dragged in.
But with the UK now reportedly sending its main battle tanks to Ukraine, this position could be about to change. Kyiv has urged Germany, in particular, to send its Leopard 2 tanks to the frontline.
These fighting vehicles - widely regarded to be the West’s best tanks - are used by 20 countries, including Poland and Finland. But they cannot be sent into another country without Germany’s approval.
Poland has urged Berlin to allow it to send some of its own Leopard 2 tanks over the border to Ukraine. Several reports have suggested Germany’s stance is softening.
What are Challenger 2 tanks?
Challenger 2 tanks have been the UK’s principal battle tank since 1994. They are designed to take out enemy tanks and positions and have been used in combat in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Iraq.
The country has 227 of the 62.5 tonne tanks split across four regiments. Armed with a 120mm gun that holds the world distance record for the destruction of another tank, they have an operational range of up to 340 miles (550km) and can reach a top speed of 37mph.
The four-man Challenger 2 tanks are likely to allow Ukraine to be more mobile along the eastern front. The speed of their offensives in the autumn was a big factor in why Russian forces were pushed back from the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine’s North East.