This week’s announcement by the White House, and more importantly the German Chancellery, to commit a combined total of 45 tanks to Ukraine may on the face of it sound like slim pickings. Yet be in no doubt, this is a decision of huge strategic and operational significance.
It will be the first time in NATO’s history that allied tanks occupy the same European battle space as their Russian equivalents. Granted these tanks will not be operated by NATO troops, but it is NATO’s military equipment that has enabled Ukraine to push Russian occupying forces back and regain occupied territory. And it is NATO weapons that are likely to determine the outcome of this war.
That Germany caved into allied and international pressure by agreeing to provide President Zelenskyy with an “iron fist” to beat the Russians is by itself, remarkable. Let’s not forget this is the same country that was mocked for sending to Ukraine in the initial phase of the war. Since then, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has overturned decades of German pacifist policy to commit to spending over 2% of GDP on defense, whilst also sending heavy weapons to Ukraine.
Of course, all this is to be welcomed. A strong and credible military alliance requires its second-largest economy to be both capable and willing to confront adversaries. Whilst Germany’s initial provision of 14 Leopard 2 tanks may sound trivial, it matches UK and Polish contributions and opens the way for other nations to contribute. Germany’s tough export controls also require it to sanction any re-export of its tanks by other countries.
There are over 2,000 Leopard 2 tanks held by 13 NATO allies across Europe, meaning there is potential to significantly increase the number going to Ukraine. And crucially, because the Leopard 2 is widely used across Europe, there are sufficient supplies of spare parts and maintenance equipment to keep them going throughout the conflict, in contrast to the more logistically challenging Abrams and Challenger 2 tanks pledged by the US and UK. Each variety of tanks that Ukraine receives requires large specialized teams to operate and maintain them, placing additional pressure on the resilience of armed forces already stretched to the limit and having to learn the ropes of multiple European weapons systems.
Currently, Russian forces occupy an estimated 15% of Ukrainian territory along an approximately 800-mile front line. The winter lull in heavy combat operations has enabled them to dig in and fortify their defenses. Russian forces are trying to consolidate territorial gains in the Donbas before launching new offensives in the spring which the Kremlin hopes will spare Putin’s blushes. He simply cannot afford to lose significantly more Russian-held territory if he is to get anything out of this war, whether through conquest or negotiated settlement.
Russian forces appear to have built an enormous network of trenches, mines, and other defensive obstacles. If Ukraine is to have any hope of breaking these entrenched defensive lines across open terrain without suffering horrific losses, it will need dozens (preferably hundreds) of Leopard 2 tanks, along with sufficient infantry support and armored vehicles.
So far, 105 tanks (plus more than 100 tank-killing infantry fighting vehicles) have been pledged by Western allies – approximately one-third of the 300 Ukraine says it needs to win and overmatch the 10 times as many Soviet-era tanks operated by Russian forces. This is certainly a good start and for the first time enables Ukrainian forces to go on the offensive. Without tanks or air supremacy, it is very difficult to see how Ukraine could realistically defend its own front lines whilst retaking Russian-occupied territory in Luhansk, Donetsk, and Zaporizhzhia.
And so it could transpire that Germany —not the US — ends up providing the decisive offensive weapon to defeat Russian forces in Ukraine. Who would have thought this possible only 12 months ago when Germany’s embarrassing commitment to provide those 5,000 helmets was met with scorn, derision, and Kyiv’s mayor Vitali Klitschko remarking; “what next, pillows?”.
Whether the Leopard 2 tank does prove decisive on the battlefield obviously remains to be seen. Overall numbers are critical here, as is the time it takes to deploy these vehicles with fully trained crews. An awful lot of training and complex logistics need to happen before then, and time is running out before Russia launches a major new offensive.
But whatever the tactical outcome of the Leopard 2 deployment, it has already led to a profound shift at the strategic level of European security; Germany has finally stepped up as a serious and credible military partner, and long may that continue.
Joel Hickman is a Non-resident Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He was previously a British diplomat posted to Pakistan where he led the UK government’s serious organized crime strategy across South Asia. Before that, he was a senior policy advisor in the UK Home Office, Ministry of Defence and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.