How Western tanks could bolster Ukraine’s fight against Russia
Both Germany and the U.S. announced on Wednesday they will provide battle tanks to Ukraine after weeks of tension over donating the heavy combat vehicles.
The 31 American-made M1 Abrams tanks are unlikely to arrive in Ukraine until at least the fall, whereas the German-made Leopard 2 tanks could be in Kyiv’s hands within a couple months — possibly in time for Russia’s expected renewed offensive.
The Leopards are the most common Western battle tanks in Europe, and the Abrams are a prized Western fighting machine. Both will provide significantly more firepower than the Soviet-era tanks the Ukrainian forces are currently using.
Henk Goemans, director of the University of Rochester’s Center for Conflict and Cooperation, said the tanks would be “very important” for Ukraine’s forces in the current stage of the war, which is largely stalemated in the east.
“Ukraine is at a quantitative disadvantage,” he said. “Russia has more manpower, they have more military … and the tanks would make a big difference there.”
Here’s what you need to know about the Leopard tanks and how they could impact the war.
What are Leopard and Abrams tanks?
Germany first introduced the Leopard 2 in 1979 as its third-generation main battle tank, replacing the first-generation Leopard.
There are now four iterations of the combat vehicle: A4, A5 and A6 and A7.
Ukraine will be getting the Leopard 2 A6. Around 18 countries have those tanks and an estimated 2,000 have been produced over the years, with Germany holding around 300 in stock.
The tanks, which seat a crew of four, boast diesel engines with 1,500 horsepower and can travel up to 44 mph on roads.
The Leopard tanks, weighing in at around 62 tons, are built with heavy protective armor and are equipped with smoke grenade launchers, a 120mm smoothbore tank gun and an attached 7.62mm machine gun turret.
The U.S. Abrams, first introduced in 1980, is the third generation of U.S. battle tanks. It comes in three different model iterations ranging from a weight of about 60 tons to roughly 73 tons, with similar weapons specs to the Leopard but a turbine engine that most commonly uses jet fuel but can run on diesel.
How will the tanks help Ukraine?
Since European allies are also planning to donate their own Leopards, Kyiv could receive 88 of the tanks, or two battalions, within the next few months. It’s unclear exactly when the Abrams will arrive.
The tanks will come at a vital time. Ukraine is preparing to repel a Russian offensive and conduct a counteroffensive of its own in the spring.
Leopards and Abrams would undoubtedly assist with brutal fighting in eastern Ukraine, where there is a grinding war of attrition, and in the southeastern region of Zaporizhzhya.
John Herbst, the senior director of Eurasia affairs for the Atlantic Council, said the “tanks will help Ukraine defend its positions with fewer casualties in both locations.”
“They will also prove invaluable if Moscow launches a major offensive from Belarus or elsewhere this year, something that Ukraine’s intelligence services expect,” Herbst said in an analysis on Wednesday.
“If the tanks reach Ukraine in the next few months — which cannot be taken for granted — they could also be deployed by Ukraine in its own planning for a new counteroffensive,” he added. “On the flat terrain in Ukraine’s east and south, they could spearhead the counteroffensive.”
The tanks could also help Kyiv retake the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
So what was the holdup?
Germany was weighing concerns about escalating tensions with Russia and seeking to move in lockstep with the U.S. and other NATO allies.
Ukraine has been requesting heavier combat vehicles for months. NATO allies first announced the donation of infantry fighting vehicles, such as the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, earlier this month.
The tank debate picked up steam when the United Kingdom announced it would send over several of its Challenger 2 main battle tanks, putting pressure on Berlin and Washington to follow suit.
However, Germany and Washington remained at an impasse on the issue in recent weeks. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he would not “go it alone,” while the Pentagon said it wouldn’t send the Abrams over because they are difficult to maintain on the battlefield.
However, the U.S. and Germany hashed out their concerns and Biden changed his mind earlier this week, the White House said.
“Today’s announcement builds on the hard work and commitment from countries around the world … to help defend Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Biden said.
“We’re not going to allow one nation to steal a neighbor’s territory by force.”