The long-awaited decision by the U.S. and Germany to send battle tanks to Ukraine was hailed by Kyiv as a potential turning point in the war, but it may not move the country any closer to a decisive victory against Russia or its Western allies closer to healing their divisions, military analysts warned.
The announcement Wednesday that Washington would provide 31 state-of-the-art M1 Abrams tanks diplomatically allowed Germany — after facing huge international pressure — to unveil plans to send 14 German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. That opened the door for 15 other nations that operate the tanks to also pledge to send them to the war zone.
Germany and other countries are now able to “free the leopards,” as so many on social media had urged them to do. Countries like Poland are eager to do so as soon as possible.
But given the size of the challenge facing Ukraine — with Russian forces entrenched in 20% of its territory — the tanks will present huge new logistical challenges. Personnel must be trained and the resources found to repair, maintain and recover the tanks if something goes wrong. Plus each tank model has its own unique issues: Abrams runs on jet fuel, not diesel like the Leopard 2.
For now, the offer of tanks may be more political than practical, analysts say.
“Some of these moves were explicitly symbolic. The rationale behind the U.K. offering a small package of Challenger 2 tanks was almost overtly to demolish the most recent of Germany’s excuses for not doing the right thing,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert and analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London.
“On the Abrams, the U.S. is selling this as a long-term capability development, as opposed to something which will enable the current defense or offensive in the spring. However, it still has the effect of torpedoing Germany’s final objection and has got things moving.”
Following Wednesday's news, Russia carried out new bombardment across Ukraine early Thursday, with what the Ukrainian armed forces said was a wave of 55 missiles fired from fighter jets, ships and drones killing two civilians, one in Kyiv and one in Kherson, destroying scores of buildings and energy facilities. Ukraine said its defenses intercepted 47 of the missiles.
Much of the war has been conducted with exchanges of artillery — but as Ukraine seeks to win back land, tanks are increasingly needed. The problem, analysts say, is the numbers of tanks announced so far are just not enough.
“There have been about 1,300 Russian tank losses … so the actual numbers of new tanks [for Ukraine] in a military sense are not that significant. Conventional military theory holds that an attacking force has to have a 3 to 1 ratio. There’s a lot of Ukraine and 20, 30, 40 tanks does not go that far,” said Ronald Ti, an expert in military logistics at King’s College, London.
Nevertheless, the move to create a new “tank coalition,” as some officials called it, has been widely welcomed in Ukraine.
“Europe stopped suffering from ‘Russian disease’: I see & hear nothing, I’m afraid and stay silent,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said on Twitter on Thursday.
Zelenskyy has said Ukraine requires around 300 tanks in order to successfully defend its territory from an expected Russian spring offensive, and to begin winning back territory ceded to Moscow since the invasion began last February.
There are around 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks in Europe, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, and Germany, Poland and others were keen to stress that this week’s promise of tanks was only a first step.
“I guess what this is all playing towards is a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive in spring. And you don’t do that with Javelin-2 type missiles, you do it with tanks,” Ti said. The reliable Leopard 2 could be the platform to retake towns and cities, as Ukrainian forces did with the liberation of Kherson in November.
Even if Ukraine were to get all the tanks it is asking for, the war will not be won by tanks alone, said Ed Arnold, a research fellow for European security at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London.
“Tanks have become a political symbol in this war and now, and other nations will be asked to contribute … even though they are not always the most effective contributions countries could make,” he said.
Ukraine has also asked for armored personnel carriers and infantry vehicles to be deployed alongside the tanks, such as the Bradley fighting vehicles already pledged by the U.S.
President Joe Biden said Wednesday in a press conference that the international agreement on tanks was a sign of the allies’ strength and unity.
“Putin expected Europe and the United States to weaken our resolve. He was wrong,” he said.
But the move appears to have merely papered over long-term fault lines in the Western alliance backing Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s almost year-old invasion.
“Each time there is a consensus that Ukraine needs a certain weapon system or capability … the process is exactly the same: There is a long period of dithering in which the West pays far too much attention to repeated Russian claims that this will lead to escalation,” Giles said.
“And when eventually the decision is made, it becomes clear that the Russian threats were meaningless. However, they will continue to make them because they see the gratifying effect it has in deterring Western support.”