Does Ukraine really think that Western battle tanks can change the dynamics of the war in the Donbas? Yes. Do the United States and NATO concur? It appears so, although there are caveats.
Assessments by Ukraine, the Americans and NATO all see a Russian offensive in the spring as a real possibility. The colossal failure of the invasion and the absence of any tangible military and political accomplishments are all forcing Russian President Vladimir Putin to consider a major offensive. This will be designed to create a “victory image” before any negotiations can even begin.
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This is the conventional intelligence wisdom in both NATO and Ukraine, though Russia’s ability – technological, logistical and operational – to plan, launch and execute such an ambitious offensive remains questionable.
Even though it has about 3,500 Abrams tanks, the United States was for a long time reluctant to give them to the Ukrainians. It cited the tank’s relatively complex operating requirements for untrained Ukrainian crews, the absence of readily available technical support, the jet fuel-consuming engine (though the Abrams can run on diesel fuel as well) and logistical difficulties. Nor will 30 tanks constitute a force-multiplier that can break the military impasse in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
But that isn’t the point. The American move – a political decision apparently made against the better judgment of the Pentagon – was taken in order to facilitate Germany’s decision to supply Ukraine with its Leopard 2 tank (and also to authorize Poland to do likewise). That, combined with other platforms, has the potential to be a game-changer on the tactical and operational levels, given the circumstances and dynamics in the theater of operations.
NATO has 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks situated in 12 different countries. That makes training Ukrainian crews, access to technical support, availability of ordnance and shorter supply lines a major advantage. Bizarrely, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz initially refused to authorize the transfer of the tanks. Germany’s post-World War II aversion to any engagement in military operations and any confrontation with Russia is well known, rooted in European geopolitical history, and was taken into consideration and respected.
However, Berlin’s procrastination and standoffish position on supplying arms to Ukraine has irked many in NATO over the past year. When that pressure culminated last week in a meeting of NATO defense ministers at Germany’s Ramstein Air Base, the Germans finally relented – as long as the Americans also supplied U.S. tanks to Ukraine.
Britain’s offer to send 14 Challenger 2 tanks wasn’t enough, apparently, and Scholz insisted on this U.S. contribution. It was a strange, irritating and defiant demand given how much the United States has invested in defending Germany since 1945 – compared to, say, Germany – and particularly against the backdrop of the Americans already committing $45 billion to Ukraine.
Presumably the Ukrainians were sensitive enough not to remind Berlin that it was a German general, Heinz Guderian, who famously said: “If the tanks succeed, than victory follows.” Still, this is what they were thinking when Ukrainian Chief of Staff Valerii Zaluzhnyi said his country needed “300 tanks to change the war.”
That is the politics of it. However, the question is: Will these tanks be the game-changer Ukraine says they will be?
The Leopard 2 is just one component of what may become a major qualitative upgrade in Ukraine’s military capabilities. With mobile, accurate and advanced munitions, armored personnel carriers (the U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle) and HIMARS rocket launchers, Ukraine will have a triad of advanced, land-based platforms. Add to that the recently supplied Patriot missile defense system and drones, and the Ukrainians can conceivably not only defend but launch an offensive of their own.
It is still a highly unlikely, albeit debatable, premise that Ukraine can remove Russian forces from all lands that were sovereign Ukrainian territory before the invasion of February 24, 2022 – as the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley stated last week. But this new set of platforms and capabilities instills confidence in Ukraine that a Russian offensive, if one is launched, can be deflected and thwarted while inflicting heavy damage on the Russians.
Simultaneously, the Pentagon announced that the United States will increase production of its 155mm artillery shells to 90,000. This represents a 500-percent increase – the largest since the Korean War in the 1950s. The Americans say it is part of a general ordnance modernization plan, but the increase is obviously related to Ukraine’s needs.
With expanded military aid to Ukraine, both qualitative and quantitative, the war is increasingly becoming an almost direct confrontation between Russia and the United States and NATO – certainly more than it was at the outset nearly a year ago. As such, it commensurately becomes even more critical for Putin to demonstrate some success on all three levels: strategic (Russia’s geopolitical stature and ability to project power); military-operational (the imperative need to deliver some form of success); and political (his waning power and political predicaments inside Russia).
Can he do it? Probably not, at least not without a major escalation. Will he try? It seems he has cornered himself into a situation where he is forced to.
Given the failed strategic assumptions and the military debacle of the past 11 months, Putin’s current view of the war and possible aftermath is a recipe for escalation and an attempt to redo the entire campaign in the months ahead. It is questionable whether Russia is technologically and operationally capable of doing so, or if it can achieve significant military victories under the existing circumstances.
It is equally clear that Putin, as long as he remains in power, will need a major military and perceptual breakthrough before any diplomatic process can begin. It is doubtful whether that objective is attainable, but it does translate into one eventuality: escalation.