Why are Ukraine’s allies arguing over tanks?

Western capitals are at odds over sending modern heavy battle tanks to Ukraine, something until recently considered taboo for Kyiv’s allies.

These tanks are considered essential for Ukraine’s efforts to retake territory from Russia, which has mobilized 150,000 troops for a new offensive. Moscow has also put the country’s defense industry on a war footing in order to refit and rearm its forces. The next six months are critical for both parties.

Why are some countries ready to send modern battle tanks?

In short, to help Ukraine break the deadlock on the battlefield and regain its territory from the Russian occupation forces.

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 defensive lines and seize the military initiative before Moscow can. They would also be needed to defend Ukrainian lines against a possible new Russian offensive later this year.

Graphic describing the main specifications of four main battle tanks from different countries

Tanks are a crucial part of the so-called combined arms maneuver – mobile operations involving infantry and artillery – to take territory. Moreover, Western tanks would give Ukraine an advantage over Russian tanks, as they have superior armor, a more accurate gun and better control and navigation systems, allowing night operations, for example. example.

Why is the Leopard 2 tank high on Kyiv’s wishlist?

The German Leopard has similar capabilities to the US-made Abrams or the British Challenger, but also has some advantages, according to military experts. It is lighter and easier to power 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 its availability. Thirteen European armies operate some 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. It is unclear how many are combat ready and how many would require refurbishment. But it is a big pool from which Ukraine can draw. There are also multiple sources of spare parts and maintenance 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 was also supplied with 240 T-72s from Poland and the Czech Republic. But it loses many tanks to enemy fire – perhaps as many as 130 a month, according to Gustav Gressel of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

A T-72 tank in Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine
Ukraine received 240 T-72 tanks from Poland and the Czech Republic © Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Only a few sources of ammunition and spare parts are available for Soviet-era tanks among Ukraine’s allies. Thus, as with artillery, Ukraine must upgrade to Western-standard equipment or risk running out of shells, replacement guns and other spare parts.

This is another advantage of the Leopard 2: if its potentially large stock were made available, it would simplify the logistical support of the Ukrainian forces since repairs, spare parts and ammunition would be the same.

NATO allies have sent armored vehicles. Why the hesitation over tanks?

Several governments, including the United States, Germany, Britain, France and Sweden, have pledged infantry fighting vehicles and other armored fighting vehicles to Ukraine.

The United States said it would donate at least 59 Bradleys and 90 Strykers, while Germany would provide Marders. These armored personnel vehicles are also equipped with powerful guns, which will give Ukraine additional offensive capability.

France said this month it would send an undetermined number of AMX-10 “tank killer” armored vehicles, which are considered by some analysts to be light tanks.

However, Western main battle tanks, with their track chains, sophisticated fire control systems and heavy guns, offer a level of firepower that Western allies have been reluctant to grant Kyiv.

The UK sought to break that mental barrier last week when it announced 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 follow suit, soon.

However, the United States said it would not send its Abrams tanks, as they are too difficult for Ukraine to maintain and other suitable options in the region abound, namely the Leopard. The German government has been reluctant to send its Leopards given the risk that Russia sees 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 Kyiv.

Germany has around 350 of its own Leopard 2s, although it is unclear how many of them 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 them.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz fears that, since supplies of Leopard tanks to Kyiv actually depend on his support, any green light would be seen by Moscow as an escalation led by Berlin. This is why Scholz wants the United States to agree to send tanks before he gives his approval.

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