Returning to frontline, Ukrainian Leopard crews see their 'cat' as game-changer
- Ukrainians end training in Germany with live-firing exercise
- EU commander says Leopard tanks key for Kyiv's spring offensive
- "Other units will feel safer when fighting alongside the cat"
BERGEN TRAINING GROUND, Germany, March 13 (Reuters) - Ukrainian troops fired the 120mm guns of their Leopard tanks at a German shooting range on Monday, a few days before they were due to return home with the "cats" they hope will give Kyiv a breakthrough in what has become a grinding war of attrition.
Muzzle flashes could be seen, and dust clouds where the shells hit the ground, as four tanks fought their way through a muddy dip to what was marked as an enemy position two kilometres away, destroying wooden pop-up targets as they rattled along.
On a hill overlooking the drills at Bergen training ground in northern Germany, the commander of the EU training mission for Ukraine had to raise his voice to avoid being drowned out by the roaring gunshots as he praised the Leopard's benefits.
Vice Admiral Herve Blejean told reporters Kyiv's forces were facing the most dangerous phase since Russia's invasion more than a year ago, holding the frontline against what he described as a "tsunami" of more than 300,000 Russian combatants.
"When they will be able to involve better tanks like (the) Leopard, they will be able to break through and to look at counter-attacking," Blejean said, adding he was confident the German tanks would be a key element in Kyiv's spring offensive.
Germany agreed in January to supply the tanks, regarded as one of the best in the West's arsenal, overcoming misgivings about sending heavy weaponry that Kyiv sees as crucial to defeat Russia's invasion but Moscow casts as a dangerous provocation.
Last week, Defence Minister Boris Pistorius stated all 18 modern Leopard 2 A6 tanks pledged by Berlin would reach Ukraine before the end of March.
FIGHTING ALONGSIDE THE 'CAT'
In Bergen, the German trainers were happy with the Ukrainians' performance over their six-week crash course.
"Hitting more than 80% (of the targets in the exercise), that's an excellent result after such a short time," said one of the trainers who only gave his first name of Joerg.
Still, the Ukrainians had to abandon some of their old tactics.
"At the start, the Ukrainian crews wanted to turn the tanks around (instead of reversing)," said Colonel Michael Sack, attributing this to the fact that Russian tanks can only reverse slowly which makes them vulnerable to hostile fire.
The Leopard, however, can drive backwards fast while firing as it keeps facing the enemy with its more heavily armoured front, he argued.
The Ukrainians also trained in the dark, to make best use of what is seen as the Leopard's superior night vision equipment.
Asked about his feelings as the Ukrainians prepared to return to the battlefield, Joerg said it was a question of professionalism to blend out emotions.
"We are soldiers. Of course, they are not heading for the training ground but directly into battle. But that's exactly what motivates us so much in doing this training," he said.
One of the Ukrainian gunners rejected any talk of fear but warned the Russians to brace for the arrival of the Leopard.
"A friend in Ukrainian intelligence told me the Russians are very nervous because of the modern Leopard 2, as they well should be," he said, wearing a scarf pulled up over his face and orange-tinted ballistic glasses to hide his identity.
"The Leopard tanks will enable us to make the breakthroughs that we need. And other Ukrainian units will feel safer, too, when they fight alongside the cat."
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.