by Miceál O’Hurley
RAMSTEIN AFB (GERMANY) — Facing Vladimir Putin’s direction that his new commander in Ukraine take all Donbas by March Western defense officials met in a frantic effort to reach consensus on sending main battle tanks (MBTs) to Ukraine. In light of Putin’s timeline threat, joint military operations between Russia and Belarus near the Ukrainian border, the recent loss of Soledar, continuing heavy fighting in Bakhmut, as well as ongoing attacks upon civilian population centres and critical infrastructure, the lack of resolve of the West regarding the provision of MBTs bodes an ill omen for Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III briefed the press pool following the meeting saying the war in Ukraine had reached a “decisive moment”. Still, the announcement that officials would coalesce and announce a deal to send German Leopard 2 MBTs to Ukraine quickly proved elusive. The group of defense officials reportedly focused their attentions on armour and training for Ukraine and enhancing air defense.
Beyond Putin’s direction that Russia should solidify their hold over the entire Donbas, which it claims to be Russian territory in light of last-year’s illicit referenda, territorial claims rejected by international law and all but the handful of Russian allies, the weather is changing to make way for ground operations. The lack of commitment by Ukraine’s partners in the West to provide MBTs leaves Ukraine uniquely vulnerable to a renewed Russian offensive. Ukraine is already reeling from attacks on its power and water grids which has degraded military readiness and created a catastrophic humanitarian crisis throughout the country.
Russia also has at its command more than 150,000 newly trained soldiers. These soldiers were part of the 300,000 conscripts called-up for duty last autumn, half of which were ‘thrown into the line’ in an attempt to shore-up the devastating losses Ukraine has inflicted on Russian invaders throughout 2022. Having completed more than 4-months of training the remaining 150,000 Russian conscripts can be categorised as trained soldiers. This infusion of manpower will allow Russia to reinforce combat troops already in theatre as well as stand-up new combat brigades. Russia’s ramped-up armaments industry and acquisition of ‘kamakaze drones’ from Iran in addition to munitions purchases from North Korea threaten to culminate in a more capable and equipped invasion force. Arguably, Russia may have a more prepared and seasoned army at their disposal than those who participated in the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
.@SecDef: We’ve just concluded the eighth Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting. And it was great to start the new year by deepening our coordination as we work together for Ukraine’s self-defense. pic.twitter.com/ww8EuHcoMC
— Department of Defense 🇺🇸 (@DeptofDefense) January 20, 2023
Germany’s refusal to provide Leopard 2 MBTs with upgraded optics and firepower to Ukraine, or relent on their prohibition on other countries who possess Leopard 2s from providing them to Ukraine, creates myriad difficulties for Ukraine. The tension between Germany and the United States, the key players in these negotiations has run high. Without each blaming the other press briefings by each country has made abundantly clear the impasse will be difficult, but not insurmountable to resolve. For Kyiv, however, time is running out.
Ukraine has pleaded, if not begged for the West to provide sufficient MBTs to allow them to return to the offensive against Russian forces. Still, when asked by a reporter about the failure to reach accord on Germany providing MBTs to Ukraine Secretary of Defense Austin deflected and re-directed the reporter to his German colleagues. As for the United States’ own commitment to provide Kyiv with the MBTs pleaded for by President Volodymyr Zelenskii at Davos, Secretary Austin curtly replied, “I don’t have any announcements to make.”
Other European nations willing to put their own Leopard 2s at Ukraine’s disposal cannot do so without Berlin’s permission for 3rd-party disposition.
Speaking via video-link to the annual Davos gathering earlier this week President Zelenskii said, “Hundreds of thank-yous are not hundreds of tanks. All of us can use thousands of words in discussions, but I cannot use words instead of guns.”
In refraining to commit Leopard 2 MBTs to Ukraine Berlin is in pains to stress this is not a definitive decision. Berlin had made clear in the midst of the change of Defense Ministers it endured last week it would be willing to send Leopard 2s provided the Biden administration commits to sending its own MBTs—the Abrams tank. However, Germany’s new Defense Minister, Boris Pistorius, used a break in the negotiations to imply the matter was “more complex”. In a rebuke to Germany’s critics, Minister Pistorius said, “There is no unified consensus. The impression that has occasionally been created that there is a united coalition and that Germany is standing in the way is wrong.”
European allies of Ukraine have been openly candid about both their pressure campaigns on Berlin as well as their frustrations with the stalemate Germany has created. Germany has for decades failed to fully fund its own military leaving smaller and poorer European partners to provide a disproportionately larger share of the defense budgets to assist not only Ukraine, but ensure Europe’s own security. The belief that Russia’s ambitions rise-and-fall with Ukraine have long since dissipated. Sober European leaders understand fully that their commitment to support Ukraine is an investment in their own security. In this context, Germany is wearing on the patience of their European partners and allies, many of whom are uniquely exposed to Russian aggression by geography, history and ongoing espionage and cyber attacks. Many allies in Europe had been publicly piling pressure on Germany to allow other nations to re-export their own Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Because the tanks are German-made, approval from Berlin is required to transfer the vehicles to another country.
The coalition of support for Ukraine, once so vocally unified, is showing the strain of the prolonged ground campaign and economic detriments that have attended Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. According to member of the German parliament who have requested anonymity, other European countries, while critical of Germany, have refrained from requesting the necessary Leopard 2 re-export licenses for fear that the commitment to provide MBTs to Ukraine is not yet solidified and a refusal could further damage relations amongst Ukraine’s allies in Europe. Alternatively, other German lawmakers and officials have expressed a fear that Russia would perceive the shipment of Leopard 2s to Ukraine as a European move to escalate the war. In such a conundrum speculation is that some countries will seek political cover and refrain from pursuing re-export licenses until the United States and Germany resolve their differences. Meanwhile, Ukraine is made more vulnerable.
Minister Pistorius said there was no timeline for a deal on tanks, saying it could take between a day and weeks. “None of us can say today when a decision will be made and what the decision will be on the Leopard tanks,” he said during the break.
For now, Minister Pistorius has called for Germany to conduct an inventory of Leopard 2s and spare parts. According to him, “This is not to prejudice the outcome [of any decision]. It’s to prepare for a day that will possibly come, at which point we would be able to act immediately and deliver the support within a very short period of time.” Possibly remains the operative word and meanwhile Ukraine is placed at risk.