The case for sending western tanks to Ukraine

The approaching spring brings a possible turning point in the conflict in Ukraine. Kyiv is impatient to take advantage of the artillery warfare Western-supplied weapons have given it and assert itself to retake the Russian-held territories. This requires advanced Western-made main battle tanks. Such weapons could also be crucial in repelling a new offensive that Moscow is preparing. Although the German Leopard 2 tanks are best suited for the task, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is reluctant to supply them unless the US also sends tanks. His belated concession that Germany will send tanks – apparently in concert with the US – is a major boost to Kiev’s war effort.

Kyiv and allies, including the Baltic states and Poland, have expressed frustration at what they say Berlin has consistently trampled on over arms sales before eventually agreeing. In truth, Ukraine’s Western partners have cautiously but repeatedly probed Russia’s “red lines” since day one, when Vladimir Putin threatened any nations that obstructed his invasion with “consequences greater than any you have faced in history.” were”.

Germany is one of the top three military suppliers to Ukraine during the war; the US, the largest, has carefully controlled the flow of arms. Tanks are another step forward, albeit one that represents a major advance in destructive power and offensive capabilities, and in the fact that – unlike missiles – they have a theoretically unlimited range.

That makes Scholz’s skepticism understandable. The dark history of the 20th century makes the image of German tanks rolling across the East European plains full of symbolism. The Chancellor would clearly prefer the American M1 Abrams to be there as well. In view of Moscow’s renewed saber-rattling, he may want the cloak of a nuclear power. Scholz, who has always been cautious, navigates his own SPD with sensitivities, even if his coalition partners send back leopards. German public opinion is divided, although support for the supply of tanks is growing.

Any further delay would have risked depriving Ukraine of a crucial instrument in the spring. Alongside lighter infantry fighting vehicles provided by Germany, France, Britain and the US, tanks are essential for mobile operations involving infantry and artillery, known as combined arms maneuvers. Western models have better armor, armament and control systems than Russian tanks.

The Soviet-era T-72 tanks that Central European allies shipped to Kyiv are also running low on ammunition and spare parts; Sooner or later Ukraine will have to switch to NATO standard models. Germany’s Leopards are the most suitable: in service with 13 European armies, both the tanks themselves and spare parts are widely available.

The US is also no doubt wary of the effects of using Western heavy tanks – although American officials have insisted that the reason for favoring German Leopards is that the US super-heavy Abrams are difficult to operate, maintain and refuel. But after bipartisan pressure from Congress, the Biden administration appears to have correctly concluded that it was willing to send Abrams vehicles if necessary to get the green light from Berlin.

Permission from Berlin to allow countries with leopards to be re-exported to Ukraine – expected to be granted shortly after Warsaw – could pave the way for a number of other European countries to contribute. This is a welcome breakthrough. Ukraine is waging a war to defend not only its own homeland, but the democracy and security of Europe more broadly. In order to end the conflict on his terms, he must be given the necessary tools – despite all risk assessments.

This editorial has been updated since initial publication to reflect subsequent developments The case for sending western tanks to Ukraine

Adam Bradshaw

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