The Czech Republic has been sending tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine, in a below-the-radar bid to bolster the eastern European nation’s capacity to resist Russia’s invasion.
The deliveries are the first known time that a foreign country has supplied tanks to Ukraine, whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has repeatedly appealed for western military support against the Russian onslaught.
Czech officials said the country had been providing a range of equipment, including Soviet-designed T-72 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and howitzers to Ukraine for several weeks.
“We believe that this is the only thing that can stop the Russian forces from perpetrating more atrocities,” said one senior Czech defence official, adding that the tank deliveries so far had been gifts rather than sales.
Five T-72 tanks and five infantry fighting vehicles were sent in the most recent shipment, which came to light after photographs were posted on social media.
A second Czech official said the country was also in initial talks over providing other types of assistance including help in servicing Ukrainian heavy land-force equipment at facilities in the Czech Republic.
After more than a month of fighting, Ukraine’s armed forces have largely managed to repel Russia’s onslaught, and have prevented the invading force from capturing the capital Kyiv.
In recent days, Russia has withdrawn its forces from the area around Kyiv. However, Ukrainian officials have warned that Moscow is refocusing its offensive on the Donbas region, the second city Kharkiv, and other areas in the east. They have reiterated calls for further western military aid.
Numerous Nato countries have provided Ukraine with defensive equipment. However, they have largely balked at sending offensive weapons, for fear of escalation.
“There’s no Nato pressure [to supply weapons] . . . This is really an example of a sovereign decision by a sovereign state,” Julianne Smith, the US representative to Nato, said on Tuesday when asked about the Czech move, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Before the collapse of the USSR, Czechoslovakia was an important part of the eastern bloc’s defence industry, giving it expertise that has latterly enabled it to play a role in providing equipment to Ukraine.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London based think-tank, the Czech military has 30 T-72M4CZ tanks, which are upgraded versions of the Russian workhorse T-72, and had an additional 89 T-72 tanks in storage at the start of the year.
It also has the ability to refit and repair the kinds of Soviet-era military equipment that Ukraine’s armed forces have been using. “The Czechs have created a small industry of refitting and modernising Soviet-era weapons,” Henry Boyd, a military analyst at IISS, said.
A spokesman for the Czech defence ministry said the country had been sending Ukraine military equipment since the start of the war but declined to comment on the contents for “operational security reasons”.
“We continually try to find more suitable equipment to continue with the military aid,” the spokesman said.
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Brussels