As Ukraine urges its allies to resolve a standoff over supplies of badly needed battle tanks, Foreign Editor David Pratt examines what lies behind the haggling and what difference their delivery would make on the battlefield
Last week, while working in Kyiv, rarely a day passed without my Ukrainian colleagues bringing up in conversation the subject of tanks. Why is there so much haggling among our Western allies over supply at such a crucial moment in the war they asked, puzzled?
How is it that the US, UK and others can see the need for battle tanks to enable Ukraine to take the fight to Russian forces on our soil but Germany can’t, they enquired?
It’s not that I was in any way privileged with definitive answers to such questions but more just a sounding board towards which their frustration could be directed at a standoff that has roiled the coalition and become such a thorny issue for Ukrainians.
Defence leaders of Nato and other countries heard a similar impassioned plea for more aid – especially tanks – from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy after they gathered at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday to discuss ongoing military support.
The meeting, which included officials from as many as 50 countries, was convened to focus on how to provide weapons to Ukraine to try to push back Russian troops from occupied territory in eastern Ukraine. Speaking live via video link, Zelenskyy typically pulled no punches in his address.
“Hundreds of thank-yous are not hundreds of tanks,” he told the Ukraine Defence Contact Group.
“All of us can use thousands of words in discussions, but I cannot use words instead of guns,” Zelenskyy said before adding the warning: “Every unit helps to save our people from terror … but time remains a Russian weapon. We have to speed up.”
Zelenskyy has increasingly urged that “the supplies of Western tanks must outpace another invasion of Russian tanks” but his appeals have been stymied by a standoff between Washington and Berlin.
Germany’s position on the issue is critical, given that its leader Chancellor Olaf Scholz has the authority to approve or veto the re-export of the German-made Leopard 2 tanks which have become the military workhorse for 13 nations across Europe.
Together, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey have more than 2,000 vehicles across different variants and levels of readiness.
To date, the suggestion is that Berlin will only send its own Leopards if the Americans agree to send their own M1 Abrams tanks.
This the Americans are reluctant to do, arguing that the M1 Abrams is inappropriate for Ukraine because it runs on turbine engines that use too much fuel for Kyiv’s strained logistics system to keep them supplied at the front.
Like many Western allies, Washington maintains that the Leopards which were made in Germany in their thousands during the Cold War and exported to its allies is the only suitable option available in big enough numbers.
Standardising the use of them in Ukraine would also mean training Ukrainian crews for only one type of armour, rather than both the Leopard and M1 Abrams.
But there are other reasons, too, why Scholz has been dragging his heels over authorising supplies of the tanks to Ukraine. To begin with, he knows how politically divisive the move could be in Germany both within his government and among the population.
Scholz is not helped by the fact that his own Social Democratic Party (SPD) has a long history of pacifism and form for promoting closer ties with Russia.
Other observers say Scholtz is also worried over his country being perceived as escalating the conflict, leaving Germany exposed to the wrath of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Many Germans viewed the end of the Cold War as the end of major conflict for the West. That optimism, combined with a pacifism rooted in its guilt over its role in two world wars, meant Germany retreated on defence, effectively outsourcing its security to its US ally, analysts say.
A recent poll by German ARD television also showed how divisive the issue is among the country’s population with 46 per cent in favour of allowing the tanks to be sent and 43% against.
On Friday, Boris Pistorius, Germany’s new defence minister, dashed hopes among the country’s allies that there might be a change of mind from Berlin. Instead, Germany will continue to deliberate whether to release the Leopards to Ukraine but did promise to re-examine the army’s inventories of Leopards to see how many could be provided to Kyiv, should the moment come when Germany decides to move quickly with its support for Ukraine.
“It’s not prejudging the decision – it’s simply preparing for the day that might well come,” Pistorius said. “Then we would be able to act immediately and provide the support within a very short time.”
His words will offer little consolation to Ukraine whose leaders insist that time is of the essence if it is to fend off a new Russian onslaught and launch counter-offensives to recapture its occupied territory. Washington and London, along with other allies like Poland and Finland, share Ukraine’s sense of urgency.
“We have a window of opportunity here between now and the spring, whenever they commence their operation, their counter-offensive, and that’s not a long time,” warned US defence secretary Lloyd Austin following the meeting at Ramstein.
The whole debate over the provision of the Leopard 2 tanks is in some ways a curious one, not least given that even after the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine many military observers considered the tank to be an outmoded or even obsolete weapon.
The trend until the war in Ukraine had been to reduce investment in tanks in favour of drones and mobile anti-aircraft defences.
Ironically, the Ukrainian armed forces themselves appeared to underline that very assessment by using nimble battlefield tactics.
Time and again in the early stages of the war, infantry armed with man-portable shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons like the US-made FGM-148 Javelin brought many of Russia’s advancing T-72 and T-80 tanks to a shuddering halt.
In all, Western-supplied anti-tanks weapons combined with Ukrainian spotters using drones are said to have destroyed more than 1,500 tanks on the Russian side.
In an age of weapons such as this, where long-range precision fire and drones are the order of the day, the tank was seen by many as vulnerable and the days of massed armoured assaults over.
But the war in Ukraine has fallen into something of a pattern and given the way it’s going, which will likely involve big infantry offensives, modern battle tanks which are far better protected, faster and more deadly would play a vital role.
“Mobility is key in an offensive war,” said a diplomat from one EU country that is considering donating a number of modern battle tanks.
“If Ukraine is going to have any chance of going on the offensive, they need some mobility with heavy guns – it’s not just enough to have military-grade Land Rovers or armoured patrol vehicles. They need something that can actually destroy Russian tanks at distance,” the diplomat was quoted by Politico magazine as saying.
It’s generally recognised that tanks are a crucial element in what military analysts call combined arms manoeuvre – mobile operations involving infantry and artillery – to take territory.
According to the UK- based defence think tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), it is estimated that Ukraine had 900 tanks at the start of the Russian invasion while Russian armoured strength stood at 3,200 vehicles. After nearly 11 months of fighting, Ukraine has lost about 500 tanks, while Russia has lost 1,500.
Most military analysts agree that Western tanks have been designed very much with the defeat of Russian tanks in mind, giving Ukraine an advantage over Russian ones because they have superior armour, more accurate firepower, and better control and navigation systems, enabling night-time operations, for example.
Tanks are rated on their ability to strike other targets and their resilience from attack. The German-made Leopard 2 moves fast, has state-of-the-art targeting, and is well protected by armour. Crucially, there is also the fact that it is operated in 13 European countries, making spare parts widely available.
The prevailing view is that the old USSR didn’t prioritise quality but quantity, while Western countries were always modernising their tanks, unlike the Soviets.
That, to some extent, might have changed in today’s Russia but Moscow continues to deploy many ageing tanks.
For Ukraine to have Western tanks at its disposal would also make it less dependent on Soviet-era tanks, for which supplies of ammunition and spare parts are limited. As it stands now, providing Kyiv with enough artillery ammunition is a real challenge, say analysts, so if Kyiv had more armour for offensive operations, it would not need to rely so much on artillery bombardments to flatten Russian positions.
The commander of Ukraine’s military, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, indicated last December that for his troops to be able to reconquer the territory lost since the Russian invasion on February 24 last year, they require 300 tanks, 700 armoured infantry vehicles, and 500 artillery pieces from Nato.
With the focus now on an expected spring counter-offensive by Ukrainian forces, it becomes obvious as to why the need for modern battle tanks has become so pressing. Aside from its own desire to go on the attack, Ukraine says a big Russian offensive is coming in the spring and could throw another half a million freshly mobilised Russian soldiers into battle.
Tanks are vital if the Ukrainian forces want to break through well dug-in Russian forces and reclaim land taken by the occupiers. Ukraine’s flat territory makes it an ideal scenario for roaming tanks and their capacity to retake fortified positions in key cities along the front line.
“Ukraine will struggle to mount a second counter-offensive without a heavier force,” said Anthony King, a professor of war studies at Warwick University. Speaking to Politico, King also warned that a reduction on the supply of the US-built HIMARS multiple rocket systems, which devastated Russian forces during counteroffensive operations last autumn, will prove less effective this time around because Russian forces have moved away to avoid being hit, making the use of tanks to move forward more necessary than ever.
“From all the evidence they’re not going to have that amount of long-range precision artillery again,” said King. “So, you need a heavier close force – i.e. tanks and fighting vehicles – to make up the difference.”
The UK has already committed to sending Challenger 2 main battle tanks and the US is set to deliver another package worth $2.5 billion including armoured vehicles and air defence systems.
Eight other countries – Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Czech Republic, Estonia, the Netherlands and Slovakia – have also promised more support for Ukraine.
This leaves Germany’s position over its reluctance to send Leopard 2 tanks under increasing pressure. Should the Leopards finally be unleashed then the Ukrainian forces will doubtless put them to effective use.
Speaking last week, Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukrainian defence minister Oleksii Reznikov, said Ukrainian servicemen could be ready to operate Western tanks “in weeks rather than months”, and urged allies to start training Ukrainian soldiers on a
range of possible new equipment immediately.
“The sooner we start training, the more time we will save, because the way it has worked so far, sooner or later, any type of weaponry that we have requested, we’ve received it,” Sak said.
Few doubt that Germany will eventually relent and deliver on the Leopards but for the moment their haggling over the issue is irking some of its allies.
Behind the scenes, the US is supportive of Germany sending tanks but is not pressing Berlin to do so. That said, some American officials are not quite so patient.
Last Friday, just as the Ramstein meeting was under way, three top US senators – Democrats Richard Blumenthal and Sheldon Whitehouse, and Republican Lindsey Graham – met with President Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
After the meeting, Graham conveyed exasperation with the Germans’ reticence to provide more support.
“I am tired of the s***show surrounding who is going to send tanks and when are they going to send them. Putin is trying to rewrite the map of Europe by force of arms. World order is at stake,” Graham said.
“To the Germans: send tanks to Ukraine because they need them. It is in your own national interest that Putin loses in Ukraine. To the Biden administration: send American tanks so that others will follow our lead,” Graham implored.
The coming weeks will tell whether Washington, but especially Berlin, take heed.