The case for sending western tanks to Ukraine

The approaching spring brings a potential turning point in the conflict in Ukraine. Kyiv is impatient to utilise the advantage that western-supplied arms have helped it to gain in the artillery war, and punch through to retake Russian-occupied territories. For this it needs western-made advanced main battle tanks. Such weapons could also be vital to repel a new offensive Moscow is preparing. Though Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks are best suited to the task, chancellor Olaf Scholz has been reluctant to supply them unless the US sends tanks too. Thankfully, moves seem to be afoot — with American help — to break the logjam.

Kyiv, and allies including the Baltic states and Poland, express frustration at what they say is constant foot-dragging by Berlin over arms supplies, before it eventually agrees. In truth, Ukraine’s western partners have cautiously but repeatedly probed Russia’s “red lines” since day one, when Vladimir Putin threatened “consequences greater than any you have faced in history” against any nations that impeded his invasion.

Germany is one of the top three military suppliers to wartime Ukraine; the US, the biggest, has carefully controlled the flow of weaponry. Tanks are another step forward, albeit one that marks a big advance in destructive power and offensive capabilities, and in the fact that — unlike missiles — they have a theoretically unlimited range.

That makes Scholz’s wariness understandable, however unfortunate it may be. The dark history of the 20th century means the image of German tanks rolling across the east European plain is fraught with symbolism. The chancellor would clearly prefer American M1 Abrams to be there too. Given Moscow’s sabre-rattling, which has ticked up again recently, he may well want the cover of a nuclear power. The inveterately cautious Scholz is navigating sensitivities in his own SPD, even if his coalition partners back sending Leopards. German public opinion is split, though support for supplying tanks is swelling.

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Procrastination risks depriving Ukraine of a critical tool come the spring. Along with lighter infantry fighting vehicles that Germany, France, Britain and the US are providing, tanks are essential to mobile operations that involve infantry and artillery, known as combined arms manoeuvre. Western models have better armour, weaponry and control systems than Russia’s tanks.

The Soviet-era T-72 tanks that central European allies have supplied to Kyiv are, moreover, running low on ammunition and spares; Ukraine will sooner or later have to shift to Nato-standard models. Germany’s Leopards are most suitable: in use by 13 European armies, both the tanks themselves and spare parts are widely available.

The US is no doubt wary, too, of the implications of deploying western heavy armour — though American officials insist the reason for favouring German Leopards is that the superheavy US Abrams are tricky to operate, maintain and keep refuelled. Yet if what is required to get the go-ahead from Berlin is US tanks, indications that Washington is prepared to send a contingent of Abrams vehicles are welcome, if overdue.

Also positive are signs that Berlin is moving towards allowing other countries with Leopards to re-export them to Ukraine, and will grant formal permission sought by Warsaw. It must be hoped that if Leopards start to move from other countries, Germany will feel confident enough to join them. Ukraine is fighting a war to defend not just its own homeland but wider European democracy and security. If it is to end the conflict on its terms, it needs — with all due regard for the risks — to be granted the tools for the job.

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