Opinion

German tanks in Ukraine: A 'breakthrough' or 'an act of grave stupidity'?

Germany and the U.S. seem poised to send modern tanks to Ukraine. What will this mean for the war's trajectory?

Germany reportedly has decided to support efforts to provide Ukraine with German-made Leopard 2 tanks, a potentially critical reversal. Germany had resisted calls to transfer some of the 2,000 Leopard 2s now in the hands of allies across Europe to help Ukrainian forces fight invading Russian troops. But Berlin came under increasing pressure to approve the move as Ukraine faces a likely new spring offensive by Russia. Modern battle tanks are faster than Russia's Soviet-era tanks — with top speeds up to 45 miles per hour — and equipped with more firepower, night vision, thermal imaging, and laser range finders to track targets. 

The Biden administration is also finalizing a plan to send Ukraine some of the Army's M1 Abrams tanks, a step Germany had said the U.S. must take before it approves Poland's request to send some of the Leopard 2s. The United States and other countries already have promised armored vehicles like the American Bradley fighting vehicle. The moves are "a significant breakthrough in western efforts to bolster Kyiv's fight against the Russian army," writes the Financial Times. But how exactly will this "breakthrough" change the trajectory of the war? 

The modern tanks are essential 

The West is determined to "help Ukraine win without starting World War III," says Andreas Kluth at Bloomberg, and the fear is that sending heavy battle tanks will cross a "red line" that could cause Moscow to expand the war, or use tactical nuclear weapons. The U.S., Germany, and France "took a big step forward" in pushing the limit by announcing they would "give the Ukrainians new kinds of tanks," such as the U.S. Bradley, and the equivalent armored fighting vehicles used by Germany and France. 

But to call these vehicles tanks is "a stretch." Bradleys "have guns and treads, but their main purpose is to bring infantry soldiers wherever they're needed." Ukraine definitely "needs these vehicles badly," but to win it also must have "main battle tanks" like Germany's Leopard 2, the American M1 Abrams, or France's Leclerc. "Those are the heavy fire-breathing monsters that can punch through Russian lines and retake occupied Ukrainian territory."

Providing tanks won't end the war. It will expand it.

"It is an act of grave stupidity for the West to supply Ukraine with modern tanks," says Peter Hitchens in Britain's Daily Mail. The United Kingdom has already promised Ukraine 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks. "I know what tanks are for, and it is not defense." These powerful machines are for crashing through enemy lines. Ukraine's new tanks might "bog down," or they might "sweep all before them," retaking Crimea or rolling all the way to "a Victory Parade in Red Square."

If Ukraine does use modern tanks to "cross into what Russia regards as its own territory, then do not be surprised by anything which happens." Russian President Vladimir Putin is a "sinister tyrant" who "is probably capable of authorizing the use of battlefield nuclear weapons if cornered." Even if he is deposed, whoever replaces him will be just as likely to "press the red button." At best, these tanks will "prolong the war." At worst, they will result in parts of Europe being reduced to a "radioactive graveyard."

The U.S. should send Abrams tanks, even if just a few, as a symbol

The origin of Ukraine's weapons probably won't be what pushes Putin over his "red lines," says Fred Kaplan in Slate. Still, Germany's chancellor, Olaf Scholz, wants cover for his country by holding off on transfers of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine until the U.S. agrees to send some of its M1 Abrams tanks. Chalk it up to "unease over nightmarish images from history of German tanks rolling through the plains of Europe."

The truth is that the Abrams isn't the tank Ukraine needs, according to U.S. officials. It's "a maintenance nightmare," but if sending "a handful of Abrams tanks, just as a symbol," will speed up the arrival of dozens, or hundreds, of Leopard 2s, the Biden administration is right to send them. An Army can't win a war "fighting strictly on the defensive; it needs to mount a counteroffensive." Modern tanks, which "let soldiers unleash massive amounts of firepower while on the move," will give Ukraine the offensive capabilities it needs to win.

Where are the long-range precision weapons?

Tanks "might not be as important as the political rows suggest,"  say the editors of The Economist. Ukraine already has "hundreds of Soviet-era tanks," including some it has captured from Russia. Those tanks, coupled with Western infantry fighting vehicles — including the Bradley, the "tank-killers" of the 1991 Iraq war — would "pack a substantial punch" that could do the job.

What Ukraine really needs, though, are long-range precision weapons, such as GPS-guided missiles and the Grey Eagle armed drone, retired U.S. Army General Ben Hodges tells the magazine. These would "strike Russian command posts and logistics hubs deeper behind Russian lines," and, combined with "more and better armor," give Ukraine its best chance at retaking Crimea. 

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