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Why battle tanks from NATO countries for Ukraine may not spark an immediate NATO-Russia confrontation

The US weapons commitments aren’t enough to bolster Ukraine’s strike capabilities and require time, training and maintenance for operationalisation. So Russia could desist from upping the ante

February 03, 2023 / 02:08 PM IST
The US decision to supply tanks is part of a package that includes 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 90 Stryker armoured combat vehicles, and 350 Humvees. (Representative image)

The US decision to supply tanks is part of a package that includes 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 90 Stryker armoured combat vehicles, and 350 Humvees. (Representative image)

The recent decision of some NATO countries to supply Ukraine with tanks and other higher level equipment raises two questions. First, will this significantly enhance Kyiv’s capabilities and allow it to snatch back the initiative in the conflict; and second, could this result in escalation that leads to NATO’s direct involvement in the war or worse?

Germany and the United States announced last week that they would supply their main battle tanks (MBTs) to Ukraine. Germany will provide 14 Leopard 2 tanks, while the US will send 31 Abrams M-1 tanks. Several European countries – Poland, Spain, Netherlands, Norway and Finland – have also said that they will give some Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv. In addition, the United Kingdom has said it would supply a few Challenger tanks.

Too Few For Offensives

Although the US tanks are probably the best in the world, the relatively small numbers of the Abrams and Leopards are unlikely to contribute to Ukraine making any significant breakthrough in getting back the initiative in the war with Russia. But they could improve Ukraine’s ability to resist Russian advances and make it more difficult for Russia to achieve its goals.

First, the numbers are insufficient to create a strike force on their own that could pierce Russian defences, even in a region like Kherson where the distance to the regional capital is less than one hundred kilometres from the frontline. An additional complication is that the Abrams consumes about two gallons of jet fuel per mile whether moving or idling. This will require a very efficient fuel supply system to wherever they are deployed.

Second, the tanks are unlikely to arrive at the battle front for at least three months if not longer, given the need to train Ukrainian servicemen to use these military machines. Some US veterans have suggested that it will require a crew about a year of training to use the Abrams tank effectively.

Third, Ukraine lacks the necessary wherewithal to maintain these tanks operational, even in terms of minor repairs. A US official recently told reporters that the Abrams is complicated, expensive, difficult to maintain and hard to train on. He added that the US felt that “we should not be providing the Ukrainians systems they can’t repair, they can’t sustain, and that they, over the long term, can’t afford, because it’s not helpful.”

Nuclear Fears Recede

Another fear is, given Ukraine’s notoriously corrupt system, that advanced weapons could fall into the wrong hands. In this context, the recent dismissal by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky of several officials on suspicion of corruption is not an encouraging sign.

The US decision to supply tanks is part of a package that includes 59 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 90 Stryker armoured combat vehicles, and 350 Humvees. There are reports that the US is also considering the supply of longer range rockets. Considered along with  the earlier announcement about the supply of Patriot systems, it appears the decision on tanks is an indication of the West’s shift  on what it thinks could provoke Russia to escalate the conflict.

Till recently the fear of Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons determined the cautious approach to the kind of military equipment the West supplied to Ukraine. But for some, so far unclear, reason those fears have receded prompting the West to upgrade the kind of weaponry it is providing to Kyiv.

While it is difficult to clearly determine what exactly Russia will consider an escalation that crosses its red lines, so far the Russian reaction to the announcements of upgraded weapons supplies has been surprisingly muted.

A War Of Attrition?

It could indicate that the Russians understand that these platforms are not arriving immediately and hope to favourably change the ground situation before the upgraded weapons are deployed in Ukraine. On the other hand it could imply that the Russian leadership is prepared for the long haul in this war of attrition.

Whatever the calculations on both sides – the US-led West or Russia – it should be clear that quantitative and qualitative  enhancements of conventional weapons by both sides in Ukraine is not likely to bring an end to the war. Neither is Russia likely to capture Kyiv soon, nor is Ukraine liberating Crimea ever likely.

That either side will achieve a clear-cut victory on the battlefield appears today to be remote. Hence, the best way to end the war will be through negotiations. It is difficult to imagine today the contours of any final resolution. But for needless suffering in Ukraine and across the world to end quickly, diplomacy needs to be engaged immediately.

Nandan Unnikrishnan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.

Nandan Unnikrishnan is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Twitter: jonandan Views are personal.
first published: Feb 3, 2023 02:08 pm