Vadym Khodak beams and leans forward. He’s almost bouncing on his feet. “My soldiers like it a lot,” he says with a nod to the line of Polish Leopard 2 version 4 tanks behind him. “This machine is good quality.”
His smile speaks volumes, revealing deep furrows that a year of front line fighting have etched on his face. “I’m 57,” he says. “I’m a former tank driver and I volunteered to fight the day Russia invaded.”
That was almost a year ago.
Now he’s an army major and leading Ukraine’s new tank training in western Poland. His troops are the first to get their hands on the new Leopard 2 tanks that NATO allies spent months debating before finally agreeing in January to give Ukraine.
So far, Khodak’s crews are learning shooting skills on simulators and combat driving. Plunging through plumes of smoke, the 60-ton tanks plough through the soft forest dirt at Poland’s main tank range, in Swietoszow, near the German border.
Tucked away in a nearby airy modern hangar are simulators where the 21 crews on the training mission can learn how to use the machines’ highly effective sighting, target seeking and killer gun capabilities. Kyiv’s hope is that the weapons will deliver a punch to Russian forces and take back lost territory.
Poland has been at the vanguard of galvanizing NATO action to give Ukraine modern battlefield tanks and is now leading the way in training. Germany began Monday, Poland started a week ago.
At the site on Monday to inspect progress, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda thanked allies for stepping up.
“We have a positive response from the allies, not only about Leopards, but the British side offers Challengers. Our neighbors Germany, the manufacturer of Leopard tanks, also joined us. We would like to thank the German side for deciding to join this action,” Duda said.
Poland’s defense chief Mariusz Błaszczak laid out how allies will divide the huge task of building Ukraine’s tank force. “I made an agreement with my counterpart, the German Minister Boris Pistorius, that the Polish side will focus on building a coalition of countries that have Leopard 2 A4 tanks, Germany will build a coalition of countries that have Leopard 2 A6 tanks,” Błaszczak said.
Duda also had a message for US President Joe Biden, who will be visiting Poland next week. He urged Biden to get American tanks to Ukraine fast so they “can counter the Russian offensive.” The US has said it will send 31 Abrams, but senior administration officials said in January they will take months to arrive.
Concerns in Poland run deep that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions won’t end at Ukraine’s western border. Older civilians remember all too well the Cold War and being left behind the Soviet Iron Curtain for decades after World War II.
So far, according to Poland’s chief tank trainer, Brigadier Krzysztof Sieradzki, teaching has been a roaring success. “Compared to Polish soldiers, we don’t need to motivate them,” he said of Ukrainian crews. “When they get in the tank, they [are] very surprised at how big it is.”
According to Khodak, most of the 105 Ukrainians under his command at Swietoszow tank range have previous tank experience on the Soviet era T-72. “My soldiers already have a lot of experience on the front, therefore I think that teaching them on these tanks will be a lot easier,” Khodak said.
The combined Polish, Norwegian and Canadian trainers are in a race against time. The troops can barely be spared from the front and are needed back as soon as possible to counter Russia’s impending offensive.
Sieradzki said that usually they train troops for eight hours a day, Monday to Friday. “The Ukrainian soldiers are trained for 12 hours a day from Monday to Saturday,” he said, adding that they will be ready in a month. The NATO standard to get crews familiar with a tank is usually about two months. It can take up to two years to train them to work with other tank crews and infantry, according to Danish commanders.
The irony is the Ukrainians are almost too eager, Sieradzki said. “We need to try and hold them back … [but] they want to know everything straight away.” They need to be taught “systematically and slowly,” he said.
Khodak said his 105 troops – including 21 tank crews and support staff – were rushed to Poland from Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions with just two days’ notice on February 4.
No one is saying they’ve left a hole in the front line, but neither is Khodak asking for extra time. “I think that the training time will be enough for us to get to grips with the technology,” he said.
Sieradzki said that, despite the rush, he’ll make sure the Ukrainian troops don’t leave until they are ready.
At this remote tank range, it is possible to believe history is in the making. NATO is delivering on its promise, laying the foundations of a fully modernized NATO-compatible Ukrainian army.