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Picking Up The Pace: The Increasing Sense of Urgency Concerning Ukraine

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Deep Dive Article

By Jack Parkinson

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

"In plain language: can you deliver Leopards or not? Then hand them over!"

- Zelensky, January 2023

When Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky lost his temper in an interview with German broadcaster ARD on January 20th it was clear to see why. Ukraine had been asking for the Leopard 2 tank since day 7 of the war, yet to no avail. Fears over escalation made the delivery of tanks seem like a distant hope, and this was echoed throughout the West, which was content with merely providing defensive weapons such as NLAWs and Javelin missiles. But it wasn’t long until Ukraine had been promised something more powerful: artillery systems. Then air defence systems. Then APCs. Then drones. Then counter-battery systems. Then HIMARS. Then Patriot systems. Then IFVs. Then Light Tanks. Now, (after much frustrating delay) Main Battle Tanks (MBT).

If it seems like Western military aid to Ukraine has been piecemeal, it’s because it has. Eager not to provoke an escalation from Russia by providing too much aid at once, the West has sought to escalate military support to Kyiv gradually. This strategy, characterised by pundits as “boiling the frog”, has been a great success thus far, allowing Ukraine to first halt the invasion, before starting to take back land during the Autumn of 2022, all the while falling just short of triggering the escalation against the West that so many fear. By making every escalation small and staggered, the West avoids creating panic in Russia, and the erratic and rash actions that historically follow it. The greatest escalations of the war so far, such as Russia’s declaration of conscription and the annexation of Ukrainian land, came when the frontline disintegrated and top Kremlin decision-makers were fearful of total collapse. This strategy certainly works well for Western interests. While it would of course be preferable for Russia to be ousted from Ukraine sooner, General Mark Milley, the chairman of America’s Joint Chiefs of Staff notes the “very, very difficult” and “very bloody” conflict that would be required to evict every Russian soldier from the country.

It wasn’t inevitable that MBTs would find their way to Ukraine, despite the consistent stepping up of support throughout the war. Many allies, Germany in particular, had been averse to the idea, seeing it as a significant escalation. MBTs, unlike more defensive or lighter armoured equipment sent in previous aid packages, have the speed, power, and armour to make a noticeable impact, especially in combined arms warfare. Against the T-72, the most widely deployed tank in Ukraine, the western MBT can sustain direct hits, and deal significant damage to Russian armour. Ukraine already has a lot of the kit needed to make effective use of its new toys, receiving hundreds of light tanks, APCs, IFVs and armoured vehicles in aid in the previous months. However, it is still missing effective Western air power and missiles, a key part of modern warfare. Talks are already underway to send F-16 jets and longer range missiles, but nothing has been decided yet.

Regardless, the Leopard 2s, Challenger 2s and M1 Abrams that Ukraine are going to receive in the spring are important for reasons beyond the obvious military advantages. Their delivery signals a shift in urgency for support for Ukraine and breaks a long-held taboo on ‘serious’ offensive weaponry. While some were quick to signal this shift when the West began to provide light offensive armour last year, the real “punching fist of democracy” that Ukraine wanted was the heavy Main Battle Tank. Last October, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi said Ukraine needed an additional 300 tanks, 700 infantry fighting vehicles and 500 howitzers for a new offensive in 2023. Despite signals from some Ukrainian officials that this figure has already been reached, confirmed commitments indicate Ukraine will receive only around half of its desired kit. However, rumours are abound as to just how much extra support Ukraine may receive in the future. Spain has pondered sending some 53 Leopard 2 tanks from its mothballed storages. Similarly, Poland, along with other keen Eastern European states, has formed a coalition to ensure that Ukraine gets a steady supply Leopard 2s from their stockpiles.

This new sense of urgency comes at a time when the harshest parts of winter are coming to an end, and the frozen ground will begin to thaw. Before long, ‘General Mud’, as Ukrainian bloggers like to call the mud season, will take charge and vehicular offensives will be problematic at best. But the Ukrainians are anxious. Much of their intelligence points towards new a Russian offensive, possibly towards Kyiv from Belarus. New Russian gains and attacks around Bakhmut and Vulhedar respectively have prompted claims of a “difficult situation” from the Ukrainian president, evoking memories of the similar “difficult situation” the Ukrainians faced in June in Donetsk, where some 200 troops were being killed daily.

The coming spring will likely be the decisive period of the war and both sides know it. Whether the tanks are going to be used for a cunning offensive against the Russians or to protect the Ukrainian frontline from another Russian assault, only time will tell. In the meantime, Ukraine has reason to celebrate. The number of tanks may be low, and they may be missing Western air power and longer-range missiles, but the taboo has been broken. They can almost certainly expect more tanks in the coming months, and perhaps even the delivery of 4th generation combat jets. ‘Boiling the frog’ has proven its worth another time round but, as Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations notes, “Boiling the frog is a brilliant strategy, so long as you remember that it is not just Russia that is in the pot, but also Ukraine.” Pot or not, jet or нет, spring is coming and both sides know the stakes are high.


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