What just happened? Did the war in Ukraine just take a decisive turn? Did the West just change its tactics from helping Kyiv defend itself from the Russian aggressor to committing itself to offensive weapons and ensuring Russia’s defeat?
On January 24 Berlin caved in to European peer pressure and announced that it will send “at least one company” of Leopard 2 tanks, considered to be amongst the best in the world. There are usually 14 tanks in a company.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also invited Poland to formally apply for a re-export licence for its Leopards and made it clear she would approve it if they did. Polish President Andrzej Duda promised to send tanks during a trip to Lviv last week, but it turned out that Warsaw had not sought Berlin’s necessary permission at the time before he made his statement to a cheering crowd of locals. Now Warsaw has submitted its request for permission.
Berlin’s decision comes after a fortnight of rapidly escalating pressure on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to “free the Leopards” in a flurry of meetings. The World Economic Forum in Davos became a platform for the rising cacophony of calls to send tanks and Duda at that event said he was sure the West would send “100 tanks” to Ukraine.
The Ramstein meeting on January 22 at the end of the same week, called to co-ordinate military aid for Ukraine, was highly anticipated, as a decision on tanks was expected, but disappointing as nothing happened. By this time Scholz had said that he was open to sending the Leopards, but only if the US also sent their main battle tanks, the Abrams, as well. Scholz met with the US delegation behind closed doors at Ramstein, but no deal was agreed.
Finally there was what appears to have been a crucial meeting in Berlin on January 23 between German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius and Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, after which the decision to send tanks was reported by Der Spiegel, based on sources close to the meeting. Following the news the US also said it was going to send a company or more of Abrams to Ukraine.
What do tanks change?
The commitment of Leopards arguably changes everything. Germany has provided the most military aid of any European country to Ukraine, second only to the US, but has sent exclusively defensive weapons, famously including a large consignment of helmets.
Tanks are offensive and up until now Berlin’s policy has been to ensure that Ukraine didn’t lose, but it was not prepared to risk a direct confrontation with Russia by giving Ukraine offensive weapons that would allow it to win, Minna Alander, a research fellow with the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, argued in a thread on Twitter. “Instead, Ukraine should get enough support to prevail until both sides are ready for negotiations,” she added.
Switching to supplying offensive is a major policy change and takes Europe one step closer to a possible direct conflict with Russia. But it is not a done deal yet. While the German and US commitments seem fairly sure, given the long delays in supplying many of the weapons it is only the arrival of lots of tanks that will make a difference.
Several other countries said they would join the tank coalition championed by Poland. The Bell reported preliminary promises from 12 countries that include: Germany (14), Netherlands (18), Poland (14), Norway (8) and Finland. Spain and Denmark could also join the coalition. The UK has already committed 14 of its own Challenger 2 tanks and the US is talking about sending at least two companies of Abrams, or 31 tanks.
With 347, Spain has one of the largest fleets of Leopards in Europe and Poland has 247 to draw on. Germany only has 320, of which just 130 are actually operational. Finland has 200 tanks and one of the most battle-ready fighting forces in Europe, while the Netherlands only has 18 on lease from Germany. The UK has 227 Challenger 2 tanks, but like Germany, many of them are not operational. The US has around 5,000 functional Abrams tanks.
Altogether that adds up to a total of around 97 (not counting Spain and Denmark). That is a battalion of tanks. That is a game-changer, say military experts. The Soviet vintage T-72 are no match for the Leopards, which are 20 tonnes heavier and have heavy frontal hi-tech amour that Russian tanks don’t have, as well as bigger guns. That would allow Ukraine to go on the offensive in places like Bakhmut where the two sides have been bogged down in WWI-esque trench warfare for months.
But it’s still too soon to count the chickens. Re-export permits have to be issued to all these countries and Ukrainian soldiers have to be trained how to use the large and sophisticated Leopards, which could take months. Moreover, tanks are only as useful as their support allows them to be, so a large logistical train has to be put in place. Those problems are twice as big with the US-made Abrams, which has almost no logical support in Europe. And Berlin still has to sign off on the plan.
Currently the only really firm plans in place are to send one company of Leopards and one company of UK-made Challenger 2 tanks at some point in the future.
Clock is ticking
How will Russia react? The first thing it will do is mobilise its own modern main battle tank, the new Armata T-14 that is supposed to challenge the Western Abrams, Leopard and Challenger. There are already reports that Russia has prepared a small number of T-14s for its first operational deployment in Ukraine.
But there is a problem. The Armata doesn’t work very well. When one was rolled out with great pomp for the annual Victory Day parade last year it rumbled down Tverskaya in central Moscow until it stalled after its engine caught fire, and had to be towed away. According to the recent reports this problem has not been fixed and Russian crews are reluctant to use them because the vehicles are in such poor condition.
A repeat of the epic Kursk tank battle of WWII, when the Soviets won a stunning victory over the Nazis, seems not to be on the cards. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s other option is to flood Ukraine with men and simply overwhelm the Ukrainian resistance. And that looks a lot more likely.
Putin is clearly preparing for a spring mass mobilisation. Laws have been changed to expand the pool of conscripts by a third and a law is in the Duma now that would close the border to cars crossing without express permission from March 1, amongst other things. Military analysts widely anticipate a large Russian counter-offensive in the spring, which Russia is preparing for now, training its new conscripts from September’s partial mobilisation and manufacturing more munitions.
It is this looming offensive that may be the motivation for the change in plan to go on the offensive, because if Ukraine doesn’t end this war soon it will get much harder after Russia’s offensive begins. Moreover, as bne IntelliNews reported, the West is also starting to have problems supplying Ukraine too and is running out of ammunition, which may come to a head in the summer.
There are two other factors that may be in play – reporting on them remains vague, but suggestive. First, the German government appears split on the issue: while Scholz has been extremely reticent to commit heavy weapons to Ukraine, Baerbock has been a much more ardent supporter of Ukraine and her Green Party as a whole is firmly behind Ukraine. It was Baerbock that called on the Poles to apply for a re-export licence and approved it. She has been defiant and got into hot water for saying that Germany would support Ukraine “even if that caused street demonstrations” due to the cost-of-living and energy crises stoked by Russia.
The decision might also have been prompted by rapidly growing fissures in the European coalition to support Ukraine. Poland in particular was threatening to supply Ukraine with some of its 250 Leopard 2 tanks unilaterally, without Berlin’s permission. If that had happened there would have been little Berlin could have done about this fait accompli in the midst of a war.
Sending tanks is Scholz's worst nightmare. It is an escalation in the sense it is a change of policy from defensive support to full blown offensive support, if the full complement of promised tanks are sent.
Scholz said in a statement to the Bundestag on January 25: "We must always make it clear in everything we do that we are doing what is necessary and possible to support Ukraine, but that at the same time we are preventing the war from escalating into a war between Russia and Nato."
The unknown is how Putin will react. The unspoken hope is that Russia has already maxed out its military potential and will be unable to respond, but that is not a given. A mass mobilisation in response is a near certainty that comes with great risk to Putin’s personal position, but also would be a formidable challenge for Ukraine.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov was on the wires today and said the new Western tanks will “burn just like all the others.” Ukraine had some 2,000 Soviet era T-64 tanks at the start of the war, but lost about half of them, although many were replaced by the T-72 drawn from former Warsaw Pact partner stockpiles as well as captured Russian tanks.
Some analysts have argued that a cornered Putin could resort to nuclear weapons and he has gone to extremes at each stage in their conflict. The outlook for an end to the war becomes more unpredictable in all these scenarios.
In order to avoid the worst it remains possible that Berlin will attempt to mitigate the threat of escalation by dribbling tanks into Ukraine in some batches by dragging out the permitting process or by going slow with the necessary training programmes. That would be a headache for Kyiv, which is keen to inflict a coup de grace before the spring and a Russian counter-offensive. The details on the progress of tank dispatches in the coming weeks will be closely watched.