Delayed Tank Delivery to Ukraine Misses Window of Russian Vulnerability

The tanks are on their way to Kyiv. The U.K. has pledged to supply Ukraine with 14 of its Challenger 2 main battle tanks. Reporting suggests that the U.S. will provide around 31 Abrams M1 models. And, perhaps most significantly, on Wednesday the German government announced that it will approve third-country requests to re-export German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, with Berlin contributing 14 from its own arsenal.

The long-awaited German decision was celebrated in Kyiv. But while the new weapons system will eventually make a notable impact on the battlefield, Western hesitancy to approve the transfer means that the tanks will not be on the ground in time for Ukraine to use them at a moment when Russian forces are still exceptionally vulnerable.

"The Ukrainians were signaling an intention to conduct offensive operations over the winter, but the lack of Western security assistance has degraded their ability to do that," George Barros of the Institute For the Study of War told Newsweek.

This is not the first time that much-needed Western military assistance has arrived in Ukraine too late to be of maximum use.

Leopard 2 Tanks
Two Leopard 2 A6 heavy battle tanks and a Puma infantry fighting vehicle of the Bundeswehr's 9th Panzer Training Brigade participated in a demonstration of capabilities during a visit by former German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht to the Bundeswehr Army training grounds in Munster, Germany on February 07, 2022. Just over a week after Lambrecht's resignation on January 16 of this year, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Berlin would approve third countries' requests to re-export German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine. SEAN GALLUP/GETTY IMAGES

"The successful Ukrainian counter offensives around Kharkiv in September and Kherson in November also shouldn't have started as late as they did," Barros explained. "In the case of Kherson, the Ukrainians only received the HIMARS systems in late June, and so they couldn't really begin the necessary shaping operations to degrade the bridges across the Dnipro River until July."

"An earlier provision of all the necessary military aid could have led to an earlier liberation of Kherson, but Western policy debates led to us giving Ukraine too little, and giving it too late," he added. "It's the hesitancy in some Western capitals to provide the necessary systems immediately, not the provision of the weapons themselves, which is acting to prolong this war."

It is a pattern that dates all the way back to Russia's poorly disguised "covert" invasion of the Ukrainian Donbas region in 2014. Rather than responding with lethal military aid then, Western governments were hesitant to risk provoking a Russian "escalation." The pattern has repeated itself with increased frequency since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022.

"The Russians always threaten unrealistic escalation, because that's part of how their information warfare works," Barros said. "It's designed to affect how we make our decisions, and, despite repeated experience, it still has an effect on us."

"Every time we talk about providing something new, Russia claims that this is their 'red line,'" he explained. "Then, after we eventually send Ukraine what they've been asking for, we realize that we should have sent them the aid months ago."

The drama over Germany's decision to grant third countries such as Poland permission to re-export German-made Leopard tanks is just one more episode in a story arc that has moved from Javelin anti-tank systems to HIMARS multiple rocket launchers to tanks, and which will now all but inevitably shift to ATACAMs long-range missiles and fixed-wing aircraft.

Still, even if the provision of Leopard 2 tanks would have had a greater battlefield effect if it had been announced months ago, this week's welcome news in Kyiv still falls into the category of "better late than never." As Russia reorients its domestic economy towards military production and continues to mobilize fresh manpower, Ukraine's optimal window for liberating still-occupied territory may be closing, but it has not yet closed.

"The Russians are setting conditions domestically to prepare for a long war," Barros said, "and so the sooner that Ukraine can expel Russian forces while those Russian forces are still relatively weak, the better."

"The Russian efforts to reinvigorate their military are going to take several more months," he added, "which means that Ukraine still has an opportunity to make significant pushes forward provided that they can get the kit they need in order to punch through Russian lines."

How soon Western tanks start appearing in the field in Ukraine depends on how quickly a complex system of training, maintenance, and provisioning can be established. While the American and British pledges to supply limited numbers of their own tanks offer an important political signal, it is the German Leopard system which is most likely to make the most immediate impact on the battlefield.

Ret. U.S Major General Patrick Donahoe stresses the importance of settling on one predominant Western tank variant for the Ukrainian arsenal. He suggests that the availability and sustainability of the Leopard 2A4 offers the best opportunity for Ukraine to put a significant quantity of Western tanks onto the battlefield quickly, and to keep them there. While the Abrams, Challenger, and Leopard systems all have certain advantages relative to one another, one thing is certain: all of them are superior to anything in the Russian arsenal.

"The Ukrainians need one system, one variant, delivered in numbers that matter—about 250," Ret. U.S. Major General Patrick Donahoe told Newsweek. "In order to accomplish that, I would recommend that they go with an older variant, the Leopard 2A4."

"The 2A4 is plentiful," he explained, "and they're in nations that I think would be willing to part with them. Poland has about 250. Spain has about 100. Norway even has 50. If you build a coalition of nations willing to donate the same variant, you can build the necessary mass more quickly."

Even an older version of the Leopard 2 tank would provide Ukrainian forces with a significant upgrade over their current platforms—and over those available to their Russian adversaries.

"The level of lethality and survivability of the Leo-2 versus the Russian-made tanks that both sides are fielding right now is night-and-day," Donahoe said. "The stabilization systems are better, the fire control systems are better, the turret isn't going to get blown off if they take a hit."

"It's just a question of getting Western tanks into the field in sufficient quantities," he added, "and then making sure that the maintenance pipeline is in place to keep them there."

Establishing a chain of refurbishment, delivery, training, and maintenance on the Abrams system at the necessary scale to make a notable difference on the battlefield is a task which could take years. With the Leopards, however, the timeline is likely to be significantly shorter.

"I would think you could take a Ukrainian T-64 or T-72 crew and have them sufficiently trained on the Leo-2 in eight weeks," Donahoe said. "But you also have to train their officers on managing the logistics of the system, on the benefits of fighting with the capabilities that the Leopard tank offers. You have to train the maintainers. You have to complete the significant undertaking of doing any necessary refurbishment on the tanks themselves. And you have to establish the supply chain into Ukraine so that, once the tanks get into the fight, they can be sustained in the fight."

"With the Leopard 2A4, I think you could field the U.S. equivalent of a brigade, which is 87 tanks, in four months," he said. "And by six months you could have the equivalent of a division in the field. That's the full 250."

In other words, any observer expecting to witness anything similar to last summer's "HIMARS effect" on the battlefield is likely going to have to wait until early summer.

"With HIMARS, there were fewer individual systems, and so there were fewer operators and mechanics to be trained," Donahoe cautioned. "In addition to that, a truck-mounted, long-range missile system simply is not as complex to maintain as a tank, which needs to be prepared to go through the crucible of combat that occurs in the last mile between you and the enemy."

"The challenge of keeping hundreds of tanks in the field is significantly greater than the task of maintaining a few dozen HIMARS systems," he said.

As Ukraine races to acquire the capabilities and logistical chains necessary to utilize all of the potential advantages that Western-made tanks offer, Russia continues to train approximately 150,000 newly mobilized men for use in operations which are likely to commence later this year.

If Ukraine is to shorten the war, it will have to succeed in rolling back Russian defensive lines sometime late this spring or in early summer. If Western capitals truly hope to see this conflict end in a Ukrainian victory anytime soon, they would be advised to start supplying Kyiv now with the additional weapons systems it will need for those future operations.