Ukraine needs the arms required to win
Sending regiments of tracked armour to President Zelensky is back in the news, if it was ever out of it. The sight of railcar after railcar snaking across Europe, each bearing a Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle, is a heartening sight. They are bound for American bases in Germany, where Ukrainian soldiers will be taught how to operate them. Despite the claims of Russian media and their mouthpieces in the West, there is no question of NATO troops deploying to Ukraine.
With US military, financial and humanitarian assistance valued last December at a whopping $50 billion, this was one reason for Zelensky to drop into the White House in December to say thank you. This figure includes drones, M117 armoured personnel carriers, riverine patrol craft, 20 American High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (the widely publicised long-range HIMARS), with another twenty to follow, and Patriot air defence batteries — all to be operated by Ukrainian troops. Other Western equipment dispatched to Kyiv comprises over 300 British armoured and logistics vehicles, including six-wheeled Mastiff infantry carriers, Wolfhound, a supply version of the Mastiff, Husky four-wheeled patrol wagons, Stormer tracked air defence systems, thirty AS-90 155mm self-propelled guns and M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems. An unspecified number of Bulldog tracked personnel carriers are included, too. British veterans will know these as the old M113/FV432 “battle taxis”, considerably up-armoured and re-engined, in response to combat experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.
After some soul-searching, France is sending AMX-10 wheeled recce cars equipped with 105mm guns and Caesar self-propelled artillery, whilst Italy has just agreed to ship SAMP-T air defence batteries. Most European nations have forwarded tracked or wheeled hardware, and Australia has sent twenty Bushmaster armoured personnel trucks. All of this is to be applauded, but it is presenting exactly the same kind of logistics nightmare to Ukrainian quartermasters as the Wehrmacht experienced during World War Two. The Germans were operating over fifty different kinds of truck, often impounded from conquered nations, and dozens of different models of panzer and other tracked armour.
Make no mistake, Ukraine needs all the weaponry it can get, but if we are honest, some of the Western largesse is obsolete, or was bought for a theatre like Afghanistan, for which it can see no further need. The British AS-90 fleet, of which three batteries are destined for Kyiv, is old and was due to leave service in 2030. With this eclectic collection comes huge spare parts issues, though in the short term, Kyiv’s talented motor engineers and metal bashers can recondition these fleets, as they have been doing for the acres of Russian armour and vehicles captured since February 2022. All of this is not enough, for none of the Western vehicles include heavy tanks.
Scholz is in danger of making promises he cannot keep
Admittedly, much of the available Soviet/Russian-built tank fleet dispersed around the former Warsaw Pact and further afield, has been purchased and reconditioned for Ukraine by its international friends. The USA and Holland have jointly financed a deal to replace old vehicles with more modern examples from Western arsenals. For example, Ukraine has received more than two hundred and thirty T-72B tanks from North Macedonia, the Czech Republic and Poland. One of the Czech T-72s was crowd-funded by 11,288 citizens, who named their tank “Tomas”, after the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Masaryk. Even Morocco has opted to send twenty of its T-72s for modernisation, in exchange for Western military support.
The penny has finally dropped that what Ukraine really needs is heavy modern armour to sweep the aggressors from its terrain. Transferring their own main battle tanks (MBTs) would be a turning point in Western policy, but will only make a difference on the muddy battlefields if enough are sent. Now, there is word from Westminster that British Challenger 2 tanks will arrive, possibly alongside American-made M1 Abrams and maybe even German manufactured Leopard 2s. These are the world’s most advanced MBTs.
General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s commander-in-chief since 2021, is hoping for three hundred Western tanks, plus seven hundred infantry fighting vehicles (tracked personnel carriers armed with cannon). Aged forty-nine, he represents a new generation of officers who turned their backs on established Russian doctrine. As the one who sought and embraced Western military thinking prior to the invasion, he is as much a saviour of his nation as his president. It is unclear how many Challengers London will send, though the current talk is of “around fourteen tanks, enough to equip a squadron”.
The British announcement is timed just before the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s meeting with alliance defence ministers on 20 January. Item One on the agenda is how NATO can better equip Ukraine and whether this will temporarily denude its members of security at home.
The reason for this is not just to bolster Ukraine, but NATO politics — specifically to goad the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz out of his legendary reluctance to offer Leopard 2 tanks and to allow other nations to send theirs, too. Already, five countries including Poland and Finland are ready to transfer their Leopards to Ukraine, but they require the country of origin’s permission to do so. Kyiv intends to assemble a tank brigade using them, but Scholz must play his part.
The origins of this reticence may be beyond Scholz’s control. The Chancellor is in power thanks to his coalition with the Free Democrats (FDP) and the German Green Party. The latter hold 118 of the 736 seats in the Bundestag, winning 14.8 per cent of votes cast in the last 2021 federal election. Its parliamentary group is the third largest of six, and it has five ministers, including the Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister in the Cabinet. In addition, the Greens hold seats in fifteen of sixteen of Germany’s state legislatures. They dominate the Landtag of Baden-Württemberg as the second largest governing party in Bavaria, Berlin, Hamburg, Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein. Theirs is a voice that cannot be dismissed or ignored.
As a senior figure in the Social Democrats (SPD), Scholz himself hails from a pacifist, anti-NATO background, as do most Greens, but those in government have been obliged to shift towards a more hawkish anti-Russian defence policy. Scholz unveiled Germany’s changed world view at an emergency meeting of the Bundestag on 27 February, announcing a complete reversal of military and foreign policy. To date, Scholz and his SDP seem to be the most reluctant of the three coalition partners to send more military aid. Much time elapsed before the Bundeswehr’s IRIS-T air defence system was released. Only last week came the announcement of forty Marder infantry fighting vehicles for Ukraine, but they require refurbishment. In terms of further military aid, Scholz is in danger of making promises he cannot keep.
The reasons are simple. After decades of minimal defence spending, the Bundeswehr is in disarray. Its morale is low, kit is often old fashioned, poorly maintained and with few spares available. Defence minister Christine Lambrecht and her predecessors resolutely failed to meet the NATO minimum defence spending requirement of two per cent of GDP, first agreed in 2006. She was mocked a year ago for her derisory offer of five thousand army helmets to Kyiv, when the Ukrainian government was seeking heavy weapons. An outsider to defence issues, “Helmets” Lambrecht, who has resigned as I write, was deeply unpopular within the Bundeswehr, where her initiatives were seen to be at best half-hearted. After Germany sent over one thousand missiles to Ukraine in February-March last year, Kyiv was angered to find that the boxes they arrived in were mouldy and much of the equipment did not work. In private, Germany’s generals wonder what they actually can dispatch that is in good repair and will make a difference.
Rather than a scalpel, the Kremlin has insisted on war by sledgehammer
Besides Scholz having far less in his arsenal than he should, which humiliatingly is of little immediate value to Zelensky, he has to battle with the defence and foreign policy sensibilities of his own SPD, the Greens and others. There are deals that have to be done behind the scenes, for the party’s membership is demanding the end to a reliance not just on nuclear power, but domestic coal production as well. With an end to imported Russian gas, that is just not practicable, yet at local level the Greens are out in force to insist that King Coal has had its day. Therefore, gaining political support for any new defence projects is proving challenging.
Furthermore, burdened with a sense of Germany’s military history, many Greens have an instinctive pacifist stance and cannot see the point of any intervention, even at arm’s length, in Ukraine’s war with Russia. To this must be added the legacy of East Germany, where many Ossis remain sympathetic to their former Russian occupiers. There are also around 3,500,000 Russian speakers who live and work in the Fatherland as financial or ethnic migrants. They comprise a high profile and virulently pro-Moscow minority, whose voice travels far.
Maximising the predominantly East German insular, anti-interventionist view of Conservative citizens is the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) Party, which has 81 seats in the Bundestag, 233 at state level and nine in the European Parliament. It comprises another noisy minority difficult to ignore. Whilst the ranks of AfD are just as conflicted by Ukraine as are the Greens, the views of many members can be best summarised as “armed conflict is terrible, but Ukraine is not our war, thus ‘no’ to German arms support for Ukraine. It is their problem, not ours”. This is also the view of the Front National in France, where its leader, Marine Le Pen, came unstuck in last year’s presidential elections for her unapologetic admiration of Vladimir Putin.
Whilst many in the West are quick to condemn Chancellor Scholz, he faces legitimate challenges in delivering what he might wish, with a less domineering personality than Angela Merkel to aid him. He is instinctively a more introverted consensus-seeker, who operates behind the scenes. Possibly still tone-deaf on Ukraine, Scholz misses the point that Britain has realised. A squadron of Challenger 2 tanks may amount to a drop in the ocean, but it is a declaration of intent. Truth be told, with a fleet of just two hundred and twenty-seven Challenger 2s, many in mothballs, the deployment of fourteen to Ukraine will be a bigger commitment for the UK than many realise, for spares and maintenance will have to be part of the package. Scholz, if he can deliver, needs to make the same gesture to the international community.
So far, Germany has made an art of kicking the strategic can down the road, but this cannot continue indefinitely. During the last month have come reports of low loaders and freight cars, loaded down with Russian weaponry, bound for Belarus. The obvious implication is that another offensive will be launched into Ukraine from the north, as last February. Personally, I doubt this. Lukashenko’s own position is domestically shaky, and he remains in power only by repression. That is why his own troops will not attack Kyiv, for such a move would prove so unpopular as to possibly unseat him. Unrest in Belarus would likely lead to a Russian invasion, which he does not welcome. It is more likely that the Russians are there to fix Kyiv’s reserves, distracting them with a potential threat which fails to materialise. Ukraine would like to use their reserves to strike east into the Donbas to sever their opponent’s supply lines, hence Russia’s fixing tactic.
Kremlin politics, too, is behind the recent announcement that Russia’s notoriously po-faced General Valery Gerasimov, aged sixty-seven, is to take direct charge of the Ukraine front. Using his favourite general in this way, Putin is sending a signal to the West about his determination to win the war. The President is also reinforcing the standing of the Russian Army in the face of criticism from the 20,000-strong militia of the Wagner private military company, led by the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin and that of the Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Both appear to be running a propaganda war against the Russian Defence Ministry as well as the West.
Although Gerasimov has been Russia’s senior soldier as Chief of the General Staff since 2012, in the changed circumstances of the Ukraine war, the Russian president is also hedging his bets in putting personal accountability for victory onto the General’s shoulders. So far, Russia has not managed to dominate in any of the six domains in which it has been fighting — air, land, maritime, space, information or cyber. If Gerasimov fails, he knows he may have to pay the price of Putin’s window tax.
As the weather warms the terrain, the general will have planned a series of all-out armoured offensives for the spring. He hopes that quantity will outmatch quality to overwhelm Ukraine, regardless of casualties. It is reminiscent of the German 1916 assault on Verdun, which was as disastrous for the attackers as for the dogged defenders. There are many similarities with the Franco-German war of 1914–18, with Ukraine grimly contesting every yard of muddy terrain. There is a No Man’s Land full of shredded trees, mangled bodies and shell craters. Both sides have dug lines of opposing trenches, and both are suffering massive infantry casualties in what has become a war of artillery.
Hence the current stalemate, which Ukraine has a good chance of breaking if it has enough modern tanks, protected infantry in armoured carriers, long range artillery, jets and attack helicopters, properly coordinated. Russia has these assets too, but it has so far demonstrated an inability to integrate them into a coherent fighting force. Rather than deploy a scalpel, the Kremlin has insisted on war by sledgehammer.
The litmus test for NATO and the EU is now, not tomorrow
Moscow’s cruise missile attacks on Kyiv’s power and water infrastructure, which began on 10 October, have failed. NATO estimates that over 5,000 long range rockets and suicide drones have been used, an aspect of modern war closely watched by Iran and North Korea. The deadly rain will continue, but Russia is running short of missiles for a policy that is being openly questioned in the Motherland. The Kremlin is using strategic weapons for tactical purposes in its quest for victory. Over the weekend a regional newspaper noted that a new secondary school for 220 pupils had opened in Yakutia, 4,600 miles or a five-day train journey, east of Moscow. The paper mused, “Its cost was the price of two Kh-101 missiles, of the kind being used against Ukraine, but how many more such schools could be built instead?”
In a way, the Western powers are now presented with exactly the same strategic dilemma they faced over Afghanistan in 2020–21. Although they were directly committing personnel, as well as money and military resources to Kabul, they concluded enough was enough. The decision was made in the dying embers of the last US presidency, when the man in charge took a wholly dispassionate, transactional view of the campaign. Afghanistan was gaining America nothing and causing much pain; therefore, it was time to leave. He left it to President Biden to enact the predetermined policy.
As with peacekeeping efforts in Somalia in 1994, when the Americans left, so did everybody else. By mid-August 2021, the Taliban had arrived in Kabul. No one anticipated how quickly the incumbent regime would fall. Since then, the returning tribesmen have unpicked everything the Coalition achieved. Despite promises to the contrary, Afghan women are now worse off than they were twenty years ago.
The repercussions of the West’s rapid departure were not lost on Moscow. Vladimir Putin discerned a strategic weakness in NATO and the EU, which he interpreted as a lack of resolve. It led directly to his decision to invade Ukraine last February. Putin’s logic dictated that the West would show as much interest as it had done over his incursions in 2014 and elsewhere, in Syria and Georgia.
Now the West must make some uncomfortable decisions of a similar nature again. To fail to back Ukraine sufficiently would be to allow the Russians to win. Even promoting peace talks aimed at allowing Russia to keep some of her post 2014 ill-gotten gains (the attitude of Hungary today and certainly in the past, of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage) would amount to rewarding imperial aggression. In this sense, the strategic picture is clear. Any diminution of aid to Kyiv will risk unravelling all the support and goodwill dispatched to President Zelensky during the whole of 2022. This is the challenge the GOP controlling Congress, Prime Minister Sunak, and Presidents Macron and Scholz now face.
Europe’s far left, some Greens and right wing parties, as well as prominent Republicans, are opposed to any increase of commitment, let alone three hundred modern tanks, with most arguing for a reduction, if not discontinuation. Their views are amplified and exploited by Moscow, who argues on their behalf that “hundreds of millions are being dragged into war”. Nikolai Patrushev, a former FSB crony of Putin’s and now Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, recently put it like this: “The events in Ukraine are not a clash between Moscow and Kyiv. This is a military confrontation between Russia and NATO, and above all the United States and Britain.” Which, of course, is a grotesque perversion of the truth. Russia has engineered the conflict in Ukraine, where NATO is not fighting.
However, the governments of the West do now need to make an irrevocable military gesture which sends an unmistakable message to Moscow. They need to ensure that the plains of Ukraine are packed with an unassailable phalanx of locally-crewed, Western-made main battle tanks, which are vastly superior to the T-90s of Russia.
Analysts observe that the present flow of arms to Kyiv, particularly of anti-tank and air defence weapons, amounts to a remarkably cheap way of degrading Russia’s war machine. Do it now, they argue, or you’ll have to do it anyway in the long term. Thus, the salvation of Ukraine ultimately lies in the hands of American, British, French and German armour. The litmus test for NATO and the EU is now, not tomorrow. Either Ukraine is given all the means it needs to swiftly defeat Russia, or even greater casualties — and guilt — will follow a Putin triumph.
Hungary and Turkey may have to be left to go their own ways within NATO, but the wider world will find by this summer that it cannot remain halfway committed, as Germany under Scholz has done. So far, the West has sent Kyiv the weaponry to survive, but failure to supply the heavy metal needed to win will result in damnation by history and humanity.
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