Western aid to Ukraine has steadily increased over the past year, both in quality and quantity – small arms such as Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles which have been sent to beginning of the war to much more sophisticated systems provided more recently, such as the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) and the Patriot air defense system.
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January 2023 marked two more milestones: the month began when Western allies finally agreed to send advanced armored personnel carriers – the United States will provide Bradleys and Strykers, Germany will send Marders, the Sweden from the CV90s, etc. – and it ended with a decisive decision to also send main battle tanks.
Britain led the way by promising fourteen Challenger 2 tanks, but Germany refused to supply its Leopard 2 tanks until the United States agreed to send its own M1 Abrams tanks. Risk-averse German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wanted political cover from his U.S. allies if he were to take any action that could escalate from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and sending the vehicles would represent another break. with Germany’s post-war quasi-pacifism.
But US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who commanded armored units during the Iraq war, insisted that the M1 Abrams tanks would be too bulky for Ukraine: they require considerable maintenance and run on kerosene. The Leopard 2, on the other hand, is slightly lighter and runs on more commonly available diesel fuel.
A stalemate ensued that was finally broken this week when the Joe Biden administration agreed to send at least thirty Abrams tanks to Ukraine, though they are likely to take months to arrive. This gave Scholz the opening that he was seeking to lift his ban on supplying the Leopard 2 tanks. Germany pledged to donate at least fourteen of its Leopards, while other countries such as Finland, the Greece, Poland and Spain are preparing to send their own leopards.
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First produced in 1979, the Leopard 2 is one of the most powerful and popular tanks in the world. It is superior to Soviet-era tanks deployed by Russia and Ukraine. It features modern optics and a laser rangefinder that allow it to track targets day or night and engage them with precision. It can move quickly (top speed: forty-four miles per hour) and has secure ammo storage to avoid the danger of its turret exploding when hit – the “jack in effect”. the box” which destroyed so many Russian T -72 tanks. The M1 Abrams is in many ways similar to the Leopard 2, but in its newer variants it features even better armor and more sophisticated optics and targeting systems. Abrams wreaked havoc on Soviet-era Iraqi tanks in 1991 and 2003.
The goal of Ukrainian commanders is to quickly assemble at least seventy Leopard 2s, enough for two armored battalions. Of course, Ukrainian soldiers will need to be trained to operate and maintain these tanks, but given their experience operating Soviet-era tanks, this should not present major difficulties.
These tanks could be critical to Ukraine’s prospects of mounting a successful offensive in late winter or spring. Russia’s momentum has stalled since the early days of the war, while Ukraine has mounted successful counter-offensives around Kherson and Kharkiv, retaking around 20% of the territory occupied by Russia at the start of 2022. But there is still a huge amount of territory left in southern Ukraine and has been occupied by Russian forces since the start of the war on February 24, 2022 (not to mention the territory of Crimea and Donbass that Russia occupies since 2014). Their front line stretches over 1,300 kilometers and Russian forces have dug in and fortified their positions. Ukraine needs modern battle tanks such as the Leopard 2 to hope to break through the Russian positions without suffering appalling losses.
Secretary Austin told me in an interview last week, when he was in Germany for a meeting of countries donating military equipment to Ukraine, that “a realistic goal for this year” would be for Ukraine “cuts the land bridge” that Russian forces have established between Russian-occupied Crimea and Russia proper. This “land bridge” is one of only two supply arteries in Crimea, the other being the Kerch Strait Bridge which was damaged by a truck explosion on October 8. If Ukraine was able to cut off the “land bridge” and destroy the Kerch Strait Bridge, it could make it difficult for Russia to retain Crimea. Conversely, if Ukraine fails to cut the land bridge this year, Russia could inject more men and resources and Ukraine could permanently lose that part of its country.
Ukraine could also benefit from other Western capabilities, if able to secure them, such as longer-range rockets to target Russian bases in Crimea and fighter jets such as the US-made F-16. or the Swedish Gripen to provide aerial cover. for his strength. But once Leopard 2s are incorporated into the Ukrainian army, along with Bradleys, Strykers, CV90s and other armored vehicles, Ukraine is likely to mount an offensive that could determine the course of the war.