1. New forms of Western weapon supplies to Ukraine in 2023
In my previous article, I discussed that Ukraine mainly needs three weapon systems to continue the fight against Russia in 2023. These systems are modern fighter jets, long-range artillery, and tanks (Hooker, 2022; Figura, 2023). Two weeks after the article was published or at the end of January, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States announced they would send Leopards, Challengers and Abrams main battle tanks (MBTs) to Ukraine, ergo, sending one of the three required systems. Germany found itself in the position of being the primary decision-maker over the past weeks as it is the licence holder for the Leopard tanks, which means that other countries cannot send their Leopards without German permission. The U.S. did not want to take the lead to prevent Russia from framing it as a conflict between Russia and the United States. Instead, it is a clear signal that it is also the independent will of other countries (Reuters, 2023).
German politicians were hesitant, and they intensively debated the issue of tank delivery to Ukraine. Some analysts argued that the long discussions antagonised allies as they could not understand the indecision (Dempsey, 2023). In reality, the German tank delivery is not simply a discussion on a weapon system that Ukraine needs. In fact, it is very much a discussion against the mindset of a nation. The German legacy of causing two world wars and the holocaust is deeply ingrained in the country’s development, resulting in a pacifist public mindset. German politics and culture remain informed and guided by its history. Learning about the holocaust and the Nazi era is mandatory in the country, together with visiting a concentration camp or holocaust memorial to teach every citizen about the country’s darkest moments (Widdicombe, 2019). This education resulted in a “never again” mindset. Nevermore, should Germany use its military against other countries (Zander, 2022). Therefore, Germans are excessively critical of weapon deliveries and the use of the army, the Bundeswehr, outside the country. Significantly, unlike most other weapon systems, for Germans, tanks are symbolic and inseparably connected with the attacks against other countries during WWII – from Poland to the Soviet Union. Therefore, the debate on tank deliveries in Germany is not just about sending a weapon system to Ukraine but the question of whether history allows Germany to do so. For instance, a survey in January 2023 shows that 74% of Germans are against tank deliveries, and only 24% are in favour (MDR, 2023). The Leopards in Ukraine mean that German tanks will face Russian/Soviet tanks for the first time since WWII, for many people unthinkable after the German reunification in 1991 (Kempe, 2023).
The decision about tank deliveries means the West crossed another milestone in terms of weapon system deliveries. At the end of January 2023, Ukraine was promised almost 100 Western tanks throughout the year. However, the Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi said that he needs 300 tanks, 700 infantry fighting vehicles, and 500 howitzers for a new offensive (Beale, 2023). Ukraine’s top general has proven capable of maximising the use of each weapon system that the West has sent to Ukraine. This success is crucial to ensure the willingness of other countries to continue their support in the long run.
General Valeriy Zaluzhny is the mastermind of Ukraine’s success. He is part of a new generation of Ukrainian officers who developed the modern Ukrainian army. He finished all his educational and military stages with excellence. Retrieved from Ministry of Defence of Ukraine (2019).
Numerous analysts argued tanks are outdated as relatively cheap man-portable systems can destroy these expensive tanks. Nonetheless, they actually provide a unique combination of firepower, protection, and manoeuvrability. In conjunction with infantry support shielding them from anti-tank systems, modern tanks are game changers on the tactical battlefield (Watts, 2023). The advantage of the Abrams, Challengers, and Leopards is that they are superior to most Russian tanks in terms of combat capability and survivability. The T-90 is the most advanced Russian tank available in large numbers. It is the only Russian tank with night-fighting capabilities. The strength of the Western tanks lies in their strategic use. They rely on effective tactical reconnaissance identifying targets for them, which the tanks can fight with their precise and armour-piercing main gun, while their armour protects them against most projectiles. Likely, Ukraine will also maximise their effect during night-time, when most Russian tanks cannot counter them. So far, Ukraine has shown to make great use of reconnaissance capabilities, especially with Western support. This structure gives reason to believe that Ukraine can use Western tanks efficiently to make a difference on the battlefield (Butusov, 2023).
The potential impact of Western tanks in the Ukraine War puts Russia in a great dilemma. Therefore, Russian politicians were furious about the tank delivery announcements and claimed that this would escalate the conflict. However, simultaneously, they attempted to downplay the threat of these tanks to calm the Russian population. Russian politicians also quickly pointed towards Germany as they noticed the sensitivity of the topic in the country. They describe the similarities between the situation of German tanks in the region during WWII and the Ukraine War. Ambassador Sergei Nechayev said that Germany disregards its debt to Russia and historical responsibility for the crimes during its invasion of the Soviet Union. (Trevelyan, 2023). However, it is noteworthy that most German crimes against the Soviet Union were committed on the territory and population of nowadays Ukraine and Belarus, as most Soviet Jews lived in this area. At least 6 million Ukrainians died during WWII (Bodnar et al., 2021; Treisman, 2022). Consequently, Russian claims of German responsibility only towards Russia and not Ukraine are incoherent.
2. Potential Russian responses to Western weapon supply
Despite Russian outrage, it is clear that Ukrainian soldiers will receive training on Western tanks in the upcoming weeks, and they will be combat-ready in the following months. Therefore, Russia must carefully consider how to respond to this change in balance of power on the battlefield.
Still, we can reach some conclusions about subsequent Russian steps. First of all, these tanks will likely become high-value targets for the Russian armed forces both for symbolic and operational purposes. Alongside being efficient, these expensive systems are extremely expensive. For instance, the 31 Abrams tanks destined for Ukraine, if taken together with the supply chain. has an approximate worth of $400 millions (Bloomberg, 2023). Therefore, destroying a single unit has a high net value in terms of resources and fighting capabilities for Russia. If the Russian army manages to destroy these tanks quickly, the Western willingness to support Ukraine may suffer in the long run. Observers of the conflict will watch closely how the Western tanks perform in face of Russian forces. So, for Russia, they pose a significant threat but simultaneously, if it can find a way to put them out of game, an opportunity to show the strength and capability of its army.
Russian responses to the Western tanks should be analysed in two different periods; before they arrive the battlefield and then when they are combat-ready. The Russian army will likely haste for new offensives before the Western tanks appear within Ukrainian forces to make as much ground as possible. Over the past few days, Russia has been conducting reconnaissance in force along the eastern frontline to discover or test the Ukrainian strength, dispositions, and reactions. This can be said to be preparatory action before its offensive, which will most likely take place in a few weeks. Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksii Reznikov expects Russian offensive to start around the 23rd or 24th of February, one year after the beginning of the war and the Russian Defender of the Fatherland Day (Murphy, 2023). Ukrainian intelligence identified that over the past few days, elements of the Russian 1st Guards Tank Army moved to the Luhansk Oblast, a movement potentially in preparation of a new offensive in this region (Hird et al., 2023). The current strength of this formation is unknown. Its units also use the T-90; therefore, this army formation is likely to be the main adversary of the Leopard, Challenger, and Abrams once they arrive in Ukraine (Axe, 2023).
After the Russian invasion, and once the Western tanks reach the frontline, Russia will use its superior air force next to the ground forces to hunt these tanks down and destroy them. So far, Russia’s air force was struggling with effective operational planning and Ukrainian anti-air systems. However, Russia still has more fighters, and they “completely outclass Ukrainian Air Force fighter aircraft on a technical level” (Peck, 2022, para. 4). Therefore, the West must continue supporting anti-air systems to protect the tanks from Russian aircraft. It would be unwise to underestimate Russian air power while the war continues.
3. Western deliveries in the future
The current Western support is moving in the right direction, but it is not enough for Ukraine yet to repel Russia from its territory. Therefore, the West will need to send more tanks. Additionally, more long-range artillery is required to hit Russian targets beyond 100km. Ukraine’s top generals, Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi, and the National Security’s First Deputy Chairman Mykhailo Zabrodskyi said that these artillery systems are indispensable for Ukraine to make meaningful progress in the future. The war will last for years as Ukraine cannot respond to Russian artillery strikes if the artillery capabilities between Russia and Ukraine remain as disproportionate as now (Zoria, 2022). Responding to this call, on Saturday (4 February), the US announced the aid package to Ukraine, totalling to $2.2bn would include long-range missiles to enable Ukraine to double its attack range. Accordingly, the US will send ground-launched small-diameter bombs (GLSDB) which can hit targets 150km away (Murphy, 2023). It is likely that more Allies and Western partners will join the US in providing long-range missile systems.
Some experts also advocate providing Ukraine with the Swedish Gripen fighter jet. It would enable Ukraine to compete with the Russian air force and consequently protect Ukrainian soldiers, citizens, and Western tanks on the ground. Currently, most discussions centre around the American F-16, F-18 or F-35, and the European Eurofighter, forgetting the Swedish 4th generation fighter jet. However, the modern Gripen can compete with Russia’s advanced jets. It is also ultimately cheaper than the American and European equivalents. The Gripen is not as advanced as the F-35, but it is questionable whether the F-35 is even effectively usable in Ukraine due to its complexity. Vice versa, Gripen’s operational costs are lower, it is relatively simple to use, and it is maintainable by only six people. Therefore, it would be less burdensome for the already overstretched Ukrainian air force. However, its stocks are limited. Therefore, countries operating these aircraft would have to give them away from their active units (Atlamazoglou, 2022). For 2023, Ukraine’s weapon supply problem will continue. The country needs Western fighter jets, long-range artillery, and tanks to continue its liberation campaign.
Jannis Figura is a research assistant intern at Beyond the Horizon ISSG. He currently follows a master’s program in Crisis and Security Management with a special focus on “Governance of Crisis” at Leiden University
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