The newest wave of providing arms to Ukraine is part of the West’s strategic response to the success of the Kremlin's military and economic mobilisation, which has shifted the balance of power in the Russian-Ukrainian war in Moscow’s favour. However, the proposed deliveries appear to be more of a symbolic gesture than a practical response to the unfolding situation. According to experts, breaking the taboo surrounding the supply of armoured vehicles and tanks to Ukraine, as well as offensive weapons more generally, is an important step forward. However, in addition to the potential political problems that this may create in the process (for example, the need to obtain final approval from Germany), there are also various technical issues to resolve. And, most importantly, a fundamental fork in the road lies ahead: the Western coalition, which, until now, has been transferring weapons to Ukraine from its own stocks, needs to take some important decisions regarding its investments in order to continue supplying these weapons. If they fail to do so, these supplies will not be sufficient to counteract Russia’s advantage on the battlefield.
Russian society did not, for the most part, oppose ‘partial mobilisation’. And, moreover, this weak public opposition emboldened the Kremlin to make this ‘partial mobilisation’ de facto permanent. Even taking into account the myriad of problems plaguing military organisation in Russia, this issue, as we wrote about last November, can be viewed as a critical turning point in the war, one that both Ukraine and the Western coalition need to formulate an adequate response to.
According to military experts, the warring parties have long decided on their military strategies in accordance with the resources available to them and their individual capabilities. Russia is waging a traditional firepower-centric war of attrition, while Ukraine, which has much less military, economic and human capacity, is engaged in a terrain-focused war of manoeuvre. That being said, Russia previously lacked enough manpower to fully implement its own strategy, and this deficit increased the possibilities for and effectiveness of the Ukrainian counter-strategy. The success of mobilisation has now compensated for this shortcoming, and Russia currently possesses every opportunity to deplete the resources of its opposition, while also having the upper hand when it comes to its ability to replenish the aforementioned resources, both in terms of weapons and manpower.
Fears that Russia would gain a decisive advantage on the battlefield have sharply increased NATO allies’ commitment to sending new types of weapons to Ukraine. Jack Walting, Senior Research Fellow of Land Warfare at the Royal United Forces Institute, in his piece for The Guardian, states that the Kremlin will be able to form new combat units by spring in order to mount another offensive in Ukraine. And, although industrial military production in Russia is limited in scope, the government has both the materials and capabilities to establish it, by means of economic mobilisation.
The reassessment of Russia’s military and technical potential has also played a crucial role in the West’s change of position regarding a new military aid package. The likelihood of Moscow escalating the conflict has also influenced this decision. Tobias Ellwood, a British politician and soldier who heads the UK’s Defence Select Committee, notes that 2022 demonstrated that Russia is too weak to engage in direct conflict with NATO. This has encouraged Western politicians to be brave when it comes to standing up to Putin and refusing to be intimidated by his rhetoric. The majority of experts polled by the Atlantic Council also noted a reduction in the risk of a direct conflict, as Moscow is completely unprepared for such an event.
In late December, the West announced a new package of arms deliveries to Ukraine. Washington confirmed that it would send the Patriot Air Defence System, and Berlin followed suit in January. Catching most military experts by surprise, France, Germany and the United States promised to send armoured fighting vehicles, namely the AMX-10 RC (total number not announced), 40 Marders and 50 American Bradleys. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak also promised to supply Ukraine with twelve Challenger 2 battle tanks. Finally, Polish President Andrzej Duda announced that Warsaw will also provide Ukraine with German Leopard tanks. This list is likely to keep growing.
Kyiv primarily needs Leopard 2 tanks. Experts are confident that if a significant number of these were to be supplied, it would significantly increase Ukraine's ability to defend itself and launch attacks. These tanks are well-suited for breaking through trench warfare and crossing muddy or sandy terrain. At the same time, armoured vehicles will play a key role in the battles for control of major cities. Yet two types of problems remain unresolved in the supply of these tanks.
The first problem is purely political, that is the ‘German problem.’ When deciding on supplies to Ukraine, Western countries must coordinate these decisions with the manufacturer of the weapons, meaning the decision to send Leopard 2 tanks depends heavily on Germany’s position. Germany is currently struggling to overcome its own doctrine of non-delivery of weapons to combat zones — especially offensive weapons. However, pressure on the German chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party is growing both within the country and outside. The Greens (Die Grünen) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) have both already agreed to supply these types of tanks (announced on January 16 by Economy Minister Robert Habeck of The Greens and Justice Minister Marco Buschmann of the Free Democratic Party). The opposition has also been putting increasing pressure on the chancellor. For example, one senior member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Johann Wadephul, believes that it is only a matter of time before this supply issue is resolved. Estonia, Poland and Finland, who have these tanks in service and want to send them to Kyiv, have formed an international coalition to put pressure on the German government to get permission to ship these tanks to Ukraine.
The second set of challenges includes technological and logistical issues, and these also depend on political decisions. At a weight of around 69 tons, the Leopard 2 and the 72-ton Challenger 2 are more than 20 tons heavier than the Soviet-designed battle tanks currently in use by Kyiv. There is a lack of necessary infrastructure in Ukraine that would allow these vehicles to be deployed successfully, as the country’s roads and armoured recovery vehicles are only optimised to support Soviet tanks. Therefore, engineering and support vehicles must also be provided to Ukraine, but most NATO countries lack these.
In fact, as Jack Watling asserts in his analysis, taking into account the symbolic meaning of the aforementioned decisions, it should be acknowledged that the Western coalition is at an important crossroad as until now it has mainly been supplying redundant and obsolete weapons to Ukraine from its own supplies. This assistance did not require any special investment in military production. However, these stocks have now been depleted and Russia is mobilising economically, which means that the West faces the need to invest in the production of new weapons.The decision to supply limited batches of tanks remains symbolic, and is important as it overcomes yet another taboo in the West's approach to the problem of military assistance to Ukraine. Nonetheless, this is evidently insufficient as a physical response to Russia’s initiative to implement a military and economic mobilisation in the autumn of 2022. According to the commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi, in order to turn the tide in Ukraine’s favour, it needs around 300 Western tanks and around 600-700 armoured vehicles, as well as 500 howitzers. But even if these figures are exaggerated, the West will need to find radically new solutions if it is to compensate for the tactical advantage that appears to be developing on the Russian side.