On the 25th of January last, the US government announced that it will supply modern combat vehicles, the popular “tanks”, to Ukraine. The M1 model, used by the US military, is one of the most capable in the world, and the announcement came alongside similar statements from NATO’s European allies, especially Germany. The announcement has a somewhat commented long-term aspect, which must have brought a lot of relief to the Ukrainian government.
The change in NATO’s general policy regarding the supply of tanks began with the change in the German Ministry of Defence. Boris Pistorius replaced Christine Lambrecht to manage the new, less passive German stance. When talking about “less passive”, it is important to highlight that this accusation is made considering the size of the German economy and defense industry. That is, that the country could do more in support of Ukrainians, not that it has done nothing.
Germany provided, for example, some of the main anti-aircraft assets used by the Ukrainians, in addition to maintaining other state-of-the-art equipment. The thing is, when compared to countries like Poland and Lithuania, Germany is doing far less. Of course, the fact that these two countries have a history of centuries of rivalry with Russia, including periods of direct rule by the Russian Empire and, later, by the Soviet Union, weighs in.
Mainly, Germany was criticized for vetoing the supply of military equipment of German origin by other countries. Supposedly not to further aggravate the conflict, due to the very strong pro-Russian lobby within Germany, but also for industrial reasons. The fact is that this posture was seen as very frustrating by Ukraine and the US. For example, if Poland wanted to send its German-made Leopard 2 tanks, Germany could veto the export.
The issue is that Poland decided to “trick” the German position and claim that it would send the aforementioned tanks even without German authorization. This would generate negative political repercussions within NATO and within the EU, in addition to a possible German boycott of the Polish armed forces. This second factor, however, would not matter so much to Warsaw, since, in recent years, the country has become a major buyer of war equipment produced in the USA.
Still, it would be awkward and a fracture in the alliance in the midst of conflict. Either as a result of the Polish “hand-forced”, or as a result of the change of minister, or a combination of both, Germany has announced that it will authorize the export of tanks to Ukraine. More than that, the German government has announced that it will send tanks to the Ukrainians itself. In total, Germany, Finland, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland have announced the shipment of Leopards 2.
Finland and Germany have reserves of hundreds of these vehicles, while the other countries will possibly send tanks from their active units. Germany will send fourteen vehicles. In total, there will be about a hundred combat tanks, plus fourteen of the Challenger II model supplied by the United Kingdom. It seems like a small number, but right now Ukraine needs all the material help it needs. “At this time”, specifically, of the anticipated renewed Russian offensive.
In addition, the models that Ukrainians will receive are considered among the best of their generation. Both the US M1 and the German Leopard II are still fruits of Cold War military doctrines. In that historical context, the Soviet forces would have numerical superiority in European territory. This superiority is even a historical element of Russian military doctrine. To balance the numbers, then, NATO was betting on the technological superiority of its vehicles.
America’s long-term commitment
There is another factor in Germany’s change of heart. The German government insisted that it would only supply tanks if the US did too. That is, he wanted long-term guarantees of US involvement in the conflict, the supply of weapons and the logistical support that will be necessary for the operation of the vehicles by the Ukrainians. They got this guarantee that the countries will be together in this war of attrition. Which was also celebrated by Ukraine.
We then come to the details of the long term of this whole operation. The US government has thousands of M1 in its stockpiles. This is not hyperbole. The thirty-one vehicles that will be received by Ukraine, however, will be brand new, ordered from the first screw to conform to Ukrainian specifications. The reasons are two. First, vehicles in stock contain depleted uranium in their armor, which cannot be exported under US law.
Removing this armor would be practically the cost of producing a new vehicle, making the supply economically unfeasible. Second, some internal systems would not be exported to Ukraine, even more so at the risk of being captured by Russia. Therefore, the option for new vehicles. Producing a few dozen tanks, however, is not exactly fast. There are also programs for training, maintenance and production of spare parts.
Ukraine welcomes the US decision to send new vehicles, then, as it signifies the US commitment to Ukraine’s defense for at least a few years. It’s a different scenario than sending vehicles that are collecting dust in a warehouse, which can be used quickly without much commitment. It is a long-term program, in the midst of conflict. It also represents a bet that the future Ukrainian army will have a very different face from the current one.
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