Tanks help but the battle of wills is how the Ukraine war will be decided
With the Berlin logjam finally broken, Ukraine is getting its tanks: 14 German-designed Leopard 2s, and potentially many more from other European powers now that Germany has lifted its veto on sending them. That’s alongside the 14 Challenger 2 tanks pledged already by the UK and the 31 M1 Abrams tanks that the US has finally agreed to dispatch. These western models will offer a step-change in Ukrainian capabilities from the modernised Soviet-era tanks that they have made do with until now. But their arrival is still not going to mean a quick or certain victory. Far from it.
The tank v tank offensive
President Zelensky is engaged in a military struggle with Moscow and a kind of political one with the West. He has just dismissed a slew of senior officials in a crackdown on corruption in part precisely to reassure Western partners who were worried about what they felt was a lack of progress on much-needed domestic reform (in 2021. Transparency International ranked Ukraine as the second most corrupt nation in Europe, after Russia)
Likewise, he needs momentum on the battlefield in order to maintain Western unity and optimism. For months now, Kyiv has been asking for 300 western tanks to drive President Putin’s forces off their land. They did not come up with this request arbitrarily. Tanks are central to how they envisage the war playing out in the coming months. First of all, there is little doubt that the Russians are planning their own spring offensives, drawing on the 150,000 “mobiks” or mobilised reservists from all over Russia who have been in training over the winter. Newly appointed overall commander General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, is a career tank officer and although Russia has lost perhaps 1,500 tanks so far during the war, it still has around 1,500 more to throw into any operations.
One of the best counters to a tank is another tank. Russian tanks often sacrifice a degree of survivability for speed and firepower, but they are not easy targets. The heavy losses they suffered in the early drive on Kyiv were largely because they were deployed carelessly, without proper infantry support or air cover, making them suicidally vulnerable to Ukrainian ambushes and artillery.
General Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s overall military commander, cannot count on Gerasimov repeating this mistake.
Western tanks, with hard-hitting 120mm guns — and, perhaps even more crucially, far more advanced fire control systems allowing them to shoot with greater accuracy while moving at speed — would be a powerful counter to Gerasimov’s armoured cohorts. However, if this were the main or only factor, then the Ukrainians could have lobbied more easily for additional anti-tank missile systems. Rather, they were looking at the tank’s offensive capabilities.
A punching fist of democracy
A tank — properly supported by infantry in their own armoured vehicles able to keep up on the battlefield — is a formidable weapon in the attack. The Ukrainians have been replacing, refining or reforming a ponderous Soviet inheritance of combined arms tactics, in which tanks, infantry, artillery and other capabilities work coherently together, with training assistance from the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as their own ingenuity. A British officer involved in this process said: “If they can get at least 150 modern MBTs [main battle tanks] into the field for the summer, peak tank war season, they have a chance of really showing the Russians what a difference Nato kit plus Ukrainian spirit can make.”
It is no secret that the Ukrainians intend to mount their own spring offensives too. The apparent aim is to stand up a mechanised brigade (a force of around 5,000 troops) equipped with western kit: what presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak called, perhaps understandably floridly, the “real punching fist of democracy against the autocracy from the bog”.
Such a force could, they hope, break through Russia’s increasingly elaborate defensive lines and threaten key strategic targets. These potentially include the cities of the former “people’s republics” in Donbas or an attempt to sever the “land bridge” that links mainland Russia to Crimea through Mariupol.
Crashing through the Kremlin stalemate
Moscow is hoping for victories but banking on deadlock. Gerasimov’s unexpected appointment on January 11, replacing the well-regarded General Sergei Surovikin after only three months, probably reflected Putin’s impatience with a commander who seemed more interested in consolidation than conquest. Gerasimov may well be working under similarly demanding and unrealistic orders, although if the beleaguered Donbas city of Bakhmut falls to his forces, that may offer him a breathing space. As chief of the general staff, he also has political capital that Surovikin lacked.
Denying Kyiv any substantive gains should actually be an acceptable outcome for Moscow, given that the Russian strategy largely depends on outlasting Ukraine’s capacity to fight and the West’s will to support it. This is part of the reason why Zaluzhny is so eager to move into the offensive, to prevent Russia from fortifying its front lines and presenting the war as a stalemate. As a Ukrainian diplomat put it to me: “If Moscow can create the illusion that we can’t win on the battlefield, then some of our ‘friends’ in the West will start losing their enthusiasm and start pushing us to cut a deal, a bad deal, with the occupiers.”
Western quality against Russian quantity
In a recent broadside Boris Johnson, who has taken on the mantle of Kyiv’s booster-in-chief, rhetorically demanded that the West “double and treble” its support, and said that the supply of tanks to Ukraine would mean “game over” for Putin. It is not going to be nearly so easy, though.
There is quite a gap between a political declaration and impact on the battlefield. The new German defence minister Boris Pistorius said that the tanks would be in Ukraine by early April, but training a crew used to Soviet models for the Leopard 2 could still take up to ten weeks.
More to the point, while an influx of western armour — not just the 200 or so tanks that Kyiv may now receive — will undoubtedly have a transformative effect on Ukrainian capabilities, it would be dangerous to be overconfident. The Russians are making their own preparations to respond. They may send a few of their brand new T-14 Armatas, although while this is a very modern design, one could argue that it is simply too modern. Only a relative handful have been produced, and they are proving temperamental; their high-tech systems proving quick to break down, slow to repair.
Instead, they will rely on more old-fashioned responses: on quantity more than quality. With the mobiks added to his existing forces and also the thuggish mercenaries of the Wagner Group, Gerasimov may not have an army with the necessary professionalism, morale and quality to launch major offensive operations, but could mount a tenacious defence.
He could also use his clout in Moscow to push Putin to take steps he has been trying to avoid because of the political dangers involved. One would be a further round of mobilisations of reservists, but the other could be to deploy conscripts.
There are some 180,000 potentially available, and while half of them are due to be demobilised this spring, there have already been suggestions that national service could be extended from the current 12 to 18 or even 24 months. By law, conscripts cannot be deployed outside Russia’s borders except when war has formally been declared, but when Putin annexed the four contested regions of Ukraine in October, he gave himself a pseudo-legal workaround: from then on, he would be able to claim that any fighting there was taking place on Russian soil.
A ferocious spring push will be vital
This is why acquiring western tanks matters. When the Ukrainian hammer hits the Russian anvil, Kyiv needs it to be as powerful as possible. Momentum on the ground and also in the political struggle depends on it. As one Ukrainian officer put it: “Putin is a dictator, he can ignore defeat after defeat until he has been physically expelled from our country. But if we begin to look like losers, then who will stand up for us?”
And Russia is not defeated yet. It retains considerable latent strength, not least thanks to a population three times that of Ukraine. As Putin militarises his country, its capacity to learn from its mistakes and dig in for the long haul cannot be ignored. If Ukraine’s forces are unable to punch through the “Surovikin lines”, as Russia’s defences are called, let alone if Gerasimov is able to make any meaningful gains, then the chances of this war degenerating into a slow, gruelling struggle of attrition become all the greater. This also increases the chances that western nerve may begin to falter.
However, a substantive breakthrough, especially one that pierces the “land bridge”, will not only encourage Ukraine and the West, it will make it harder for Putin to believe that time is on his side. It may not force him into genuine negotiations, and it carries with it the risk that he will be more willing to contemplate escalation. However, it would undermine his confidence and domestic credibility. This spring is likely to see an upsurge in the tempo and ferocity of fighting, with western tanks — if they can be fielded in time — tipping the scales for Ukraine. But war is always ultimately a battle of wills as much as of resources.