Western capitals disagree about sending modern heavy battle tanks to Ukraine, something that until recently was taboo for Kiev’s allies.
Such tanks are considered essential to Ukraine’s efforts to regain territory from Russia, which has mobilized 150,000 troops for a renewed offensive. Moscow has also put the country’s defense industry on a warpath to rearm and rearm its troops. The next six months are crucial for both sides.
Why are some countries willing to send modern main battle tanks?
In short, to help Ukraine break the stalemate on the battlefield and retake its territory from the Russian occupier.
Western tanks – such as the American M1 Abrams, the British Challenger 2 or the German-built Leopard 2 – would give the Ukrainian army additional firepower to break through Russian defenses and seize the military initiative before Moscow can. They would also be needed to defend Ukrainian lines against a possible renewed Russian offensive later this year.
Tanks are a crucial element in the so-called combined arms maneuver – mobile operations with infantry and artillery – to take territory. In addition, Western tanks would give Ukraine an advantage over Russian ones, as they have superior armour, more accurate guns, and better control and navigation systems, enabling nighttime operations, for example.
Why is the Leopard 2 tank at the top of Kiev’s wish list?
The German Leopard has similar capabilities to the US-made Abrams or the British Challenger, but also offers some advantages, according to military experts. It is lighter and easier to fuel than the American tank, which is powered by a thirsty turbine engine. It is considered more reliable than the Challenger.
But the crucial advantage is availability. Thirteen European armies operate some 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. It is unclear how many of these are combat ready and how many need to be refurbished. But it is a great pool for Ukraine to draw from. There are also multiple sources of spare parts and service experts.
Does Ukraine already have tanks?
Yes a lot. It had its own fleet of Soviet-era tanks. It has captured more than 500 tanks from Russian forces since their full-scale invasion last February. It has also been supplied with 240 T-72s from Poland and the Czech Republic. But it loses many tanks to enemy fire — possibly as many as 130 a month, according to Gustav Gressel of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Among Ukraine’s allies, few sources of ammunition and spare parts are available for Soviet-era tanks. So, as with artillery, Ukraine must switch to Western standard equipment or risk running out of grenades, replacement barrels and other spare parts.
That is another advantage of the Leopard 2: making its potentially large stock available would simplify the logistical support of the Ukrainian armed forces, as repairs, spare parts and ammunition would be the same.
NATO allies have sent armored vehicles. Why the hesitation about tanks?
Multiple governments, including the US, Germany, Britain, France and Sweden, have pledged infantry fighting vehicles and other armored fighting vehicles to Ukraine.
The US has said it will donate at least 59 Bradleys and 90 Strykers, while Germany is supplying Marders. These armored personnel carriers also have powerful guns, which will give Ukraine an additional offensive capability.
France said this month it would send an undetermined number of AMX-10 “tank killer” armored vehicles, which some analysts consider light tanks.
However, Western main battle tanks, with their chain-tracks and sophisticated fire control systems and heavy guns, provide a level of firepower that Western allies were reluctant to bestow on Kiev.
The UK tried to break that mental barrier last week when it said it would send 14 Challenger tanks to Ukraine. The numbers are not militarily significant, but the decision set a precedent that Britain hoped would encourage other countries to do the same soon.
However, the US has said it will not send its Abrams tanks as they are too difficult to maintain for Ukraine and there are plenty of other suitable options in the region, namely the Leopard. The German government has been hesitant to send its Leopards, given the risk that Russia would see the move as an escalation that could drag NATO into the conflict.
Why is Germany’s role so crucial?
Under the terms of its export contracts, Berlin’s approval is required if other governments want to donate Leopard tanks to Kiev.
Germany has about 350 Leopard 2s of its own, although it is unclear how many are fully operational. Boris Pistorius, Germany’s new defense minister, said on Friday the military would begin technical assessments of the tank fleet’s combat readiness pending a final decision on whether to send it or not.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz is concerned that because Leopard tank supplies to Kiev are effectively dependent on his support, any green light by Moscow would be seen as a Berlin-led escalation. That’s why Scholz wants the US to agree to send tanks before giving its approval.