The US and Germany continue to argue about which country should send its tanks to Ukraine first.
For months, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been pushing his western allies to equip his troops with heavy tanks so they can break the stalemate with Russian forces.
Before the Ukraine conflict broke out almost a year ago, many experts thought that tanks had become obsolete in the face of precision missiles, drones and cyber warfare.
But tanks have assumed strategic importance as the Russian-Ukraine troops have dug themselves into trenches in places such as the Luhansk and the Zaporizhzhya region.
There’s only one problem: Western allies can’t decide on who should take the lead and send track-wheeled heavy armour to Ukraine.
A German dilemma
Germany, Europe’s industrial powerhouse, is at the crossroads, facing pressure from Ukraine and Western allies, especially the United States, to send its powerful Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
Even though Berlin has financed Ukraine with billions of dollars, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has time and again expressed fear that the tanks could be seen as a sign of Berlin escalating the conflict.
“They want to support Ukraine. But they don't want to provoke Russia. So the pattern we have seen so far since the initial Russian invasion is that it takes a great deal of time for the US and NATO countries to come around to supplying more potent weaponry,” Benjamin E Goldsmith, a professor of international relations at the Australian National University, told TRT World.
Germany has insisted that the US should take the lead and supply the American-made M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine instead.
Berlin's hesitation to become the first mover of battle tanks stems from its role in World War I and II,in which millions of people were killed.
Ever since the end of Nazi Germany in World War II, successive German leaders have maintained a pacifist approach, adopting peace-oriented postures and avoiding military buildups.
Can there be a breakthrough?
The issue has rekindled debate ahead of a meeting of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group (UDCG) at the US-run Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Thursday (January 19). The UDCG, which includes the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance members, will assess Ukraine’s military needs.
Germany is yet to reveal its approach toward the meeting. Since Christine Lambrecht, the German defence minister, resigned on January 16, her successor Boris Pistorius has yet to make any policy statement regarding his stance on Ukraine.
Lambrecht stepped down after facing criticism on how she was dealing with Europe’s worst military crisis since World War II.
Pistorius, the new defence minister, now faces the challenge of dealing with the Leopard 2 issue.
Germany is also grappling with another difficult aspect in light of the UK's fresh announcement about sending 14 British-made Challenger tanks to Ukraine. London's move has left Germany at an odd spot, as murmurs of Berlin developing cold feet are gaining traction.
Two dozen heavy tanks will give a little edge to Ukraine's armoured battalions.
Ukraine’s top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny told The Economist in an interview that Ukraine needs 300 tanks, 600 to 700 armoured fighting vehicles and 500 Howitzers to reverse Russia's battleground gains.
Why Leopard 2?
Leopard 2, which is equipped with a 122mm cannon, is one of the most effective tanks in the world with the ability to hit car-sized targets from kilometers away while it's on the move.
Leopard 2 is being mooted as the best option for Ukraine because militaries in Ukraine’s neighbourhood have tanks in their military arsenal.
The tank is used by 13 European states including Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Poland and Sweden.
According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, these countries have around 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks. But they can not supply the tanks to Ukraine without Germany’s approval.
Since Leopard 2 tanks are widely used, Ukraine can quickly obtain spare parts. From the operational standpoint, the Polish or Finnish military can easily train the Ukrainian tank operators since the former is familiar with using such vehicles.
The US-made Abrams will have to cross many borders to be delivered and maintaining the logistics of spare parts over such a long distance would be difficult.
M1 Abrams is also known as fuel guzzlers. Since they run on kerosene-grade diesel, refuelling them is not an easy task.
Time is running out
From a strategic point of view, Ukraine is at a critical juncture.
Snow will start melting within a few weeks and Russia has deployed its top military commander, Valery Gerasimov, to lead the troops on the battlefield as it prepares for what’s being dubbed the Spring Offensive.
Ukraine, which relies on Soviet-era artillery, has faced trouble finding ammunition and had to rely on unlikely sources.
#Ukraine: The massive needs of the Ukrainian Army when it comes to artillery are being met from some unorthodox sources- Ukrainian artillerymen were spotted using 122mm HE artillery projectiles made by Pakistani Ordnance Factories (POF) 🇵🇰. pic.twitter.com/Uu8X1zT6wi— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) August 30, 2022
Weapons made in Western countries, including shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles, have been decisive in halting the advance of Russian troops. But the utility of main battle tanks such as the Leopard 2 has become evident as they can help soldiers manoeuvre rather safely during close-range fighting.
After months of dragging his feet on the matter, US President Joe Biden approved the delivery of the Patriot air defence system to Ukraine in December 2022.
But he has brushed aside Zelenskyy’s demand of acquiring surface-to-surface Army Tactical Missile Systems. Biden fears this can allow Kiev to hit targets inside Russia, dragging NATO into a direct conflict with President Vladimir Putin.