Ukraine has been promised dozens of tanks to fight Russia. Now what?

“Some of these moves were explicitly symbolic. The rationale behind the U.K. offering a small package of Challenger 2 tanks was almost overtly to demolish the most recent of Germany’s excuses for not doing the right thing,” said Keir Giles, a Russia expert and analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London.

“On the Abrams, the U.S. is selling this as a long-term capability development, as opposed to something which will enable the current defense or offensive in the spring. However, it still has the effect of torpedoing Germany’s final objection and has got things moving.”

Following Wednesday’s news, Russia carried out new bombardment across Ukraine early Thursday, with what the Ukrainian armed forces said was a wave of 55 missiles fired from fighter jets, ships and drones killing two civilians, one in Kyiv and one in Kherson, destroying scores of buildings and energy facilities. Ukraine said its defenses intercepted 47 of the missiles.

Much of the war has been conducted with exchanges of artillery — but as Ukraine seeks to win back land, tanks are increasingly needed The problem, analysts say, is the numbers of tanks announced so far are just not enough. 

“There have been about 1,300 Russian tank losses … so the actual numbers of new tanks [for Ukraine] in a military sense are not that significant. Conventional military theory holds that an attacking force has to have a 3 to 1 ratio. There’s a lot of Ukraine and 20, 30, 40 tanks does not go that far,” said Ronald Ti, an expert in military logistics at King’s College, London.

Nevertheless, the move to create a new “tank coalition,” as some officials called it, has been widely welcomed in Ukraine. 

A Leopard 2 tank during a training exercise in Ostenholz, northern Germany, last October. Germany has pledged to send 14 Leopards to Ukraine.Ronny Hartmann / AFP – Getty Images

“Europe stopped suffering from ‘Russian disease’: I see & hear nothing, I’m afraid and stay silent,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said on Twitter on Thursday.

Zelenskyy has said Ukraine requires around 300 tanks in order to successfully defend its territory from an expected Russian spring offensive, and to begin winning back territory ceded to Moscow since the invasion began last February.

There are around 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks in Europe, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, and Germany, Poland and others were keen to stress that this week’s promise of tanks was only a first step.

“I guess what this is all playing towards is a potential Ukrainian counteroffensive in spring. And you don’t do that with Javelin-2 type missiles, you do it with tanks,” Ti said. The reliable Leopard 2 could be the platform to retake towns and cities, as Ukrainian forces did with the liberation of Kherson in November

Even if Ukraine were to get all the tanks it is asking for, the war will not be won by tanks alone, said Ed Arnold, a research fellow for European security at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London.

Germany agrees to send Leopard-2 tanks to Ukraine.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, seen in Berlin on Wednesday, has faced prolonged criticism for a reluctance to send military equipment to Ukraine.Tobias Schwarz / AFP – Getty Images

“Tanks have become a political symbol in this war and now, and other nations will be asked to contribute … even though they are not always the most effective contributions countries could make,” he said.

Ukraine has also asked for armored personnel carriers and infantry vehicles to be deployed alongside the tanks, such as the Bradley fighting vehicles already pledged by the U.S.

President Joe Biden said Wednesday in a press conference that the international agreement on tanks was a sign of the allies’ strength and unity. 

“Putin expected Europe and the United States to weaken our resolve. He was wrong,” he said.

U.S. Army Abrams tanks of the 2nd Brigade 69th Regiment 2nd Battalion at the Mockava railway station in Lithuania on Sept. 5, 2020.
U.S. Army Abrams tanks of the 2nd Brigade 69th Regiment 2nd Battalion at the Mockava railway station in Lithuania on Sept. 5, 2020.Petras Malukas / AFP via Getty Images file

But the move appears to have merely papered over long-term fault lines in the Western alliance backing Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s almost year-old invasion. 

“Each time there is a consensus that Ukraine needs a certain weapon system or capability … the process is exactly the same: There is a long period of dithering in which the West pays far too much attention to repeated Russian claims that this will lead to escalation,” Giles said.

“And when eventually the decision is made, it becomes clear that the Russian threats were meaningless. However, they will continue to make them because they see the gratifying effect it has in deterring Western support.”

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