A growing belief in western capitals that they should send modern battle tanks to Ukraine marks an important change in the mindset of Kyiv’s allies.
“It means that it [Ukraine] can go from resisting to expelling Russian forces from Ukrainian soil,” Britain’s defense secretary Ben Wallace said this week as he confirmed the UK would send a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks and dozens of self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine.
With Nato defense ministers set to meet on Friday to co-ordinate a fresh arms package, western capitals recognize that Ukraine may only have a narrow window in which to act — if Kyiv is to launch a successful counter-attack before Russia rearms and reinforces its depleted forces.
“This is an inflection point because Russia is taking steps which clearly indicate they don’t think the war is lost,” said David Petraeus, former director of the CIA and a retired four-star general who led US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Analysts and officials warned that this changing western calculus does not necessarily mean an end to the current drip-drip supply of weaponry to Kyiv — in part because some western capitals fear it could lead to Russian military escalation.
A pivotal moment will come at the Ramstein US air base in Germany on Friday, where Britain, Poland and Finland will try to persuade a reluctant Berlin to provide Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv and, crucially, permit other governments to do so. The US is not expected to commit to sending American-made Abrams tanks.
Berlin has so far refused, fearing the move could escalate the war and leave Germany exposed to Moscow’s wrath. German officials are adamant they will not go ahead with tanks unless the US is involved in the initiative.
Behind the scenes, the US is supportive of Germany sending tanks but is not pressuring Berlin to do so, officials said.
“We are not coaxing or trying to manipulate any nation’s decision about what they want to provide,” an administration official said. “We respect these are sovereign decisions and are grateful for all of the weapons Germany is willing to provide.”
Consensus is growing among Kyiv’s backers that Ukraine needs more offensive firepower to break the battlefield deadlock before Moscow piles more mobilized troops into the front lines.
Ukraine needed a “significant increase in support”, Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday, saying the war had reached a “pivotal moment”.
“Ukraine’s armed forces have available reserves and western aid,” said Jack Watling, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London. “Russian forces are currently at a nadir. But Russia has already mobilized 300,000 troops. By the end of 2023, Russia’s military industrial production could also be starting to spike. So there is a military and political imperative to act now.”
Donating western tanks could provide multiple benefits. It would make Ukraine less dependent on Soviet-era tanks, for which supplies of ammunition and spare parts are limited.
Providing Kyiv with enough artillery ammunition is a real challenge, said a western official, so if Kyiv had more armor for offensive operations, it would not need to rely so much on artillery bombardments to flatten Russian positions.
Wallace said another objective of sending tanks and self-propelled howitzers was to enable Kyiv to achieve “a combined arms effect” — operations integrating armour, artillery and infantry. The US this week began combined arms training for Ukrainian forces in Germany.
Washington has pledged to send scores of Bradley infantry fighting vehicles to Kyiv and is finalizing plans to provide 100 Stryker combat vehicles, both of which are essential for mobile warfare. However, it has so far declined to provide Abrams tanks, arguing that they are harder for Ukrainian forces to fuel and maintain than the German-built Leopards.
Asked if the US would send Abrams to Ukraine, Colin Kahl, US under secretary of defense for policy, said: “I don’t think we’re there yet,” citing maintenance and logistical challenges. But he said Berlin should not feel it is on its own if it were to send Leopards, pointing to the UK’s decision to send Challenger tanks.
“I think if there was a concern about being alone in providing this capability, that shouldn’t be a concern, but the German government is going to make a sovereign decision,” he said.
Kyiv’s partners once regarded sending tanks as taboo, given the risk that Russia would deem such a move as a casus belli with the west.
Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank in Berlin, said “that Rubicon was crossed a long time ago with the sending of artillery, armored artillery and Himars [precision-guided rockets]”. Putin’s “red lines” about western military support for Kyiv had been “washed away”.
Washington has backed proposals to send European tanks to Ukraine. Pentagon press secretary Brig Gen Patrick Ryder said last week that Britain and Germany could send tanks without US participation. “We are supportive of any type of capability that will give the Ukrainians an advantage on the battlefield,” he said.
But some European officials suspect Washington’s refusal to send even a token contingent of Abrams — thereby giving political cover to German chancellor Olaf Scholz to provide Leopards — reflected enduring US concern about the risk of escalation.
Washington has rebuffed Ukrainian pleas for longer-range precision missiles, such as ATACMs which have a 300km range, or modern fighter jets, such as the F-16, fearing they could be used to strike Russian territory, just as it once did for tanks .
On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that western supplies of weapons that could strike Russia and Russian-controlled territory such as Crimea would “take the conflict to a new level”, according to Interfax. “Even discussions about this are extremely dangerous,” he added.
Another problem is that training Ukrainian forces to use modern western tanks could take months.
Moreover, some western officials and analysts question how much progress Ukraine will be able to make, even if reinforced with more armor. Although Ukrainian forces overcame thin Russian defenses to retake Kharkiv province in the autumn, they made heavy going of liberating Kherson.
“Their strategy is to let the Russians bleed out,” said a European security official, “but the Ukrainians are bleeding too.”