Matt Gurney: Tanks for Ukraine solves some problems. It creates others
As for the big problem hanging over all our heads, well, that one we're just stuck with.
By: Matt Gurney
The agreements announced Tuesday and Wednesday in various NATO capitals to send a mix of modern Western main battle tanks to Ukraine solves two problems, exacerbates another, and does absolutely nothing at all to solve the big problem hanging over all of our heads.
Ukraine has been begging for allied tanks for months. The Ukrainian army, before the war, was outfitted with a variety of older Soviet-built tanks left over from the Cold War. Some of these tanks, upgraded over the years, were still very effective fighting vehicles. Others were, to put it gently, obsolete. The only saving grace for the Ukrainians was that the Russian army’s tank inventory was in largely the same state. The Ukrainians, armed with masses of Western antitank missiles, took a horrific toll on Russia’s tanks at the outset of the invasion; many of these defeated or abandoned Russian tanks have been captured, repaired and put into Ukrainian service — recall the photos of Ukrainian farmers dragging abandoned vehicles away with their tractors. But for the Ukrainians, they’re still fighting against a numerically superior enemy that is clearly unwilling to back off. And the only way to stop superior numbers is superior firepower.
Western tanks, which are typically more advanced than what the Russians started the war with and are certainly more advanced than what they have left, will help equalize the relative power of Russia and Ukraine. The Russians can still throw more manpower at the Ukrainians than will ever be true in reverse. A combination of private military contractors, paroled convicts and conscripted civilians gives Putin the dreaded weapon Russia has turned to again and again over the course of its long military history: huge hordes of poorly armed, minimally trained and barely equipped men who can still overwhelm by sheer weight of numbers.
This has apparently been Russia’s latest tactic during its recent pushes on Bakhmut and Soledar, Ukrainian settlements in the Donbas region. Indeed, as this column was being prepared for publication, the Associated Press reported that the Ukrainians were retreating from Soledar after weeks of fierce fighting. Reports to date indicated that the Ukrainians had killed or wounded huge numbers of enemy troops on the approaches to Soledar, but Putin sent still more. Ukraine can’t sustain the kind of losses Russia can. Retreat became unavoidable.
Western tanks won’t be particularly useful in stopping the massive waves of doomed men Putin is willing to send to their deaths. (Eager, even — the more paroled convicts that die in front of Ukrainian machine guns, the better for Putin — it’s a win-win.) But the Western tanks may give the Ukrainians the mobility and firepower to hit the Russians hard and fast behind the lines. That’s the kind of fast, complicated manoeuvre war Russia can no longer fight, and surprisingly struggled to fight even at the outset.
In modern warfare, when properly used, the tank serves two purposes: engaging and defeating the enemy’s own tanks, or punching through their lines and raising hell by attacking artillery positions, logistics hubs and supply depots, command posts, and otherwise savaging the enemy’s supply and communication lines. The tanks that the allies have agreed to provide will prove effective at that task, if properly utilized.
And that’s the first problem they solve. If used well, these tanks will be very effective. They’re among the best in the world, far better than what the Russians can send against them, especially since so many of Russia’s troops are poorly trained and inexperienced. But we are now in a race against time. Not only must the tanks reach Ukraine, the Ukrainians must learn how to use them, and critically, how to maintain them. This will mean training their crews, but also the repair crews, and also establishing the necessary inventories of critical spare parts and the logistics network required to distribute those parts.
This is a lot of work, but it’s achievable. Ukraine has proven very adaptable throughout the war, so no one should think this is beyond them. The challenge is that this is something they must master quickly, ahead of a possible major winter offensive by Russia, or, if not that, an offensive that every analyst seems to expect by the spring. This is a race against time, and it’s a race Ukraine can’t afford to lose.
As for the second problem the deal solves, that is a problem entirely within NATO. A major rift had been threatening to open up in the alliance over the issue of providing tanks. Some of the allies had been very clear that they were prepared to send tanks. The British, for example, who domestically manufacture their own Challenger 2 tanks, had said they would send some. Other NATO allies had indicated that they were willing to send their Leopard 2 tanks, of German manufacture, but doing so would require the permission of Germany, which, like most countries, imposes legal limits on who may re-export German military technology. Beyond the Germans themselves, of course, a series of NATO allies use Leopards, including Canada. None of us can send them without German blessing, and the Germans were withholding that blessing.
A column getting into all the details of why they were withholding said blessing would be several times longer than this one will be. Suffice it to say this is just the latest manifestation of Germany’s extreme discomfort with this war. Some of it relates to the lingering fallout of Germany’s blood-soaked history. But we would be naïve not to attribute at least some of the reluctance to Russia’s deep influence among some segments of the German ruling elite.
Germany has contributed to the defence of Ukraine, and it would be unfair to deny that. It would not be unfair to note that Germany has typically only done so later than the other allies, and under enormous pressure.
As part of the deals being announced, the United States will be sending several dozen of its M1 Abrams tanks, and Germany will send Leopards. Berlin will also allow other allies to send further Leopards. (Canada hasn’t committed to sending any of ours yet, but our few remaining Leopards are reported to be in poor shape, and are also all the way across an ocean, so we might not even be asked.) The British will send the Challengers. This gives Germany the ability to claim, with a reasonably straight face, that it has not chosen to escalate the conflict. Heavens, no! It’s simply moving in lockstep with its allies! As fig leaves go, it’s a pretty small and transparent one, but for the purposes of diplomacy and maintaining the appearance of allied solidarity, it’ll do.
And this brings us to the problem that the plan is exacerbating. A year ago, the Ukrainian military was largely armed and equipped along Russian lines — both militaries were, after all, descendants of the Soviet Red Army. Since then, much of its original equipment has been destroyed or lost, but this has generally been offset by an influx of Western weapons into the country as the allies empty their arsenals and get their production lines running again. This has allowed Ukraine to keep fighting, far more effectively than the Russians, among many others, expected. Despite huge losses of manpower, the Ukrainian military seems to actually have grown stronger as the war has gone on, thanks to the power of its new weapons.
Sending tanks is good news to that extent. It will make Ukraine stronger still. But it is also producing a situation where the Ukrainians are armed with an absurdly unwieldy mix of weapon systems. This is laying the groundwork for a future logistics disaster.
Any individual soldier can learn to use any specific piece of equipment. That’s just a matter of training and experience. Soldiers are smart. The longer they serve, the quicker they’ll get at picking up new pieces of equipment and kit. The challenge is more on the backend. The logistics of sustaining an arsenal of completely mixed weapon systems is a nightmare. Not only must Ukraine procure a huge variety of calibers of ammunition, it must also procure, sort, and then distribute a bewildering array of spare parts to keep all these weapons running. It’s not that this is impossible. The fact that Ukraine fights on is proof that it is not. But it adds tremendous cost and complexity, and requires a much larger effort to sustain than would be the case if Ukrainian units were equipped with standard weapons across comparable units.
Ukraine won’t be able to afford to sustain this expenditure of both money and manhours indefinitely. Sooner or later, preferably much sooner, it will need to begin standardizing its armed forces, thus reaping the benefits of simplified training, maintenance, supply and deployment. Doing so with NATO-standard weapons is the logical solution, especially as many NATO allies will themselves soon be needing to replenish their armouries and ammunition magazines, not only to upgrade their capabilities in a destabilizing world, but also simply to replace what has already been given to Ukraine.
The tank deal is a perfect example of this kind of problem. Sending Ukraine Leopard 2s makes perfect sense. They are advanced, highly-effective killing machines, and are also generally similar, at least, in terms of evolutionary lineage, to the tanks Ukraine already operates (though the Leopards are much more modern, and overall better, across the board). But in order to get the political consensus needed to deliver those Leopards, the Ukrainians will also be receiving dozens of American Abrams tanks and British Challengers.
In the short term, assuming the Ukrainians can get their hands on them and train their crews and repair teams, the tanks, even in weird combinations, will help. With the Russians pushing hard and mobilizing troops on multiple fronts, it’s better to have the tanks than not. But this is simply laying the seeds of a future logistics crunch. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where a Ukrainian crew brings back a damaged Abrams, but the only spare parts available are for Challengers … and the repair team is only familiar with the Leopard, anyway. Smart and motivated crews can solve some of these problems with ingenuity. But only to a point.
These problems can be solved with time. But Ukraine needs that time. It has to survive long enough to focus on their system and to build around it. And Putin doesn’t want it to have that time.
And that brings us back to that last problem. The big one. Hell, the potentially existential one. For the time being, Russia seems to have decided against any use of nuclear weapons, and is simply throwing cannon fodder at the Ukrainians, trying to do with oceans of blood what Putin is unwilling to do by splitting atoms. Ukraine is holding on as best it can, and has even partially reversed the initial Russian gains. But we seem to be heading towards some kind of locked-in conflict where superior weapons and training are pitted indefinitely against human waves sent by an invader unwilling to back off or admit a failure in judgment. That kind of prolonged crisis will result in not only a ceaseless humanitarian catastrophe, but also a a huge risk of sudden and unpredictable escalation to a broader war, and yes, potentially a nuclear one, if things go badly enough.
There are those who object to sending tanks on the basis that it is escalatory. That’s nonsense. The war itself is escalatory, but no more so than would be a Ukrainian defeat. We don’t have the luxury of a safe, de-escalatory option to choose, because every option — Ukrainian defeat, Russian defeat, stalemate — poses its own dangers of escalation.
A negotiated peace would be ideal, and all wars end with them eventually. But on what terms? Is Russia going to back off? Would Putin survive that kind of defeat? Will the Ukrainians be willing to cut a deal with invaders that have raped and murdered through their country and are trying to freeze Ukraine’s cities in the freezing dark by bombing power plants and critical utilities? Would we trust Russia, even if a peace treaty was signed?
Eventually, sure, we’ll have peace. But any time soon? Stranger things have happened, but we can’t count on it, and must plan for another year much like the one now behind us.
So here we are. The Western allies are doing the right thing by giving the Ukrainians the means to defend their citizens from the depredations of an army that has already proven all too willing to brutalize those living under its rule. This is strategically and morally right. NATO can’t abide a Ukrainian defeat, but Putin can’t afford to lose either. Sending tanks will help Ukraine survive the winter, and to hold on in the spring, but none of this solves the big problem.
But what will? We’re all trapped in this. And will be, potentially, for years to come.
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