The tactical advantages provided by main battle tanks (MBTs) are readily apparent to anyone that has been inside a marvel of military engineering like a Leopard 2. But these lethal systems are just the point of a very long support and maintenance spear. Keeping them in the field will commit the NATO allies and partners to the war in a way that makes their involvement irreversible and could be effectively the first major step toward a war with Russia.
That over time the Europeans and North Americans could arm Ukraine with a formidable mobile armour capability is incontestable. It only takes money, industrial capacity, and political commitment. But it takes a lot. Kharkiv is 900 kilometres from Poland and Kherson 800 kilometres. Providing fuel and maintenance, and the transport and refuelling tankers required to maintain high intensity operations without inserting NATO personnel will be a challenge.
How decisive for the course of the war the provision of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) will be depends on a number of factors; the number of vehicles, the skill with which the Ukrainians employ them, the establishment of supply lines to bring the vast amount of fuel and other materiel required to the battlefront, the speed with which MBTs and their support could be delivered, and, on the rates of attrition and willingness and ability of nations to replace destroyed MBTs.
Not least of all, the Russians could actually take steps to counter this capability. That last point has received scant media attention. The Russians might press hard to maximise their advantage during the time-lag between the announcement of the provision of tanks to Ukraine and when there is a deployable Ukrainian capability that could influence the battle. This could be a period of many, many months.
Still, if the war lasts long enough, and that seems to be the assumption behind the decision to make tanks available to the Ukrainians, inevitably the NATO allies and partners would be able to deliver. This will involve intensive engagement and ongoing investment in keeping the Ukrainian MBTs in the field.
The MBTs might prove to be the magical ingredient the Ukrainians hope for, and might bring about expeditious resolution of the conflict. That would only happen if the Russians quailed and retreated before the prospect of MBTs arriving, Leopards in small numbers at first and Abrams in the fullness of time. That’s unlikely to happen and the war will drag out for more years.
It is open to the Russians to attack and degrade the transport infrastructure required to get MBTs and support equipment to the battlefront, and to attack the fuel storage and distribution facilities required to keep these fossil-fuel guzzling war machines going.
A delay would, however, give Russia the opportunity to optimise the use of its manpower advantage and the quantitative edge their own mobile armour gives them. The Russians could regroup and launch a counter offensive, take territory, and lengthen the front. A delay would also provide the space for them to continue ramping up their production of military material and weapons in preparation for the arrival of the MBTs on the battlefield.
It is, of course, possible to play around with all sorts of hypotheticals about how Russia will react to the decision to provide MBTs. The only certainty is that they will.
The real import of the decision to provide tanks is that NATO allies and their partners are now locked in for the long haul. After committing a limited number of tanks it will be almost impossible to resist Ukrainian demands for more if the first tranches are insufficient to achieve victory. It seems politically inconceivable that contributing states could just stand by if attrition rates became high. Or that they could resist Ukrainian demands for just a few more and then a few more.
And if tanks don’t bring victory what follows? Advanced fighters and bombers? Aircraft carriers in the Black Sea? Ballistic missiles? Mother of all bombs? How does the West call a halt and say, “well, we tried”?
The Ukrainians have little reason to negotiate with Russia now. They know that the NATO allies and partners are locked in. Ukraine wants everything back – the East and Crimea – and their strategic objective has now become the objective of the Europeans and North Americans. The three battalions of tanks committed most likely won’t achieve that, which leaves the West faced with stopping support, or finding itself in an open-ended commitment.
The Ukrainian thirst for absolute and humiliating punishment of the Russians now drives NATO policy. And it adds to the enormous costs already imposed on the European economy by the war. Then there’s the reconstruction of Ukraine which is probably the only thing that will cost the Europeans more than fighting the war.
The tanks might be a sensible tactical move, although that needs to be seen, but it is a poor strategic and geopolitical step. It won’t bring the negotiations necessary to end this conflict any closer.
Image: The United States’ M1 Abrams tank
Copyright Mike Scrafton. This article may be reproduced under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence for non-commercial purposes, and providing that work is not altered, only redistributed, and the original author is credited. Please see the Cross-post and re-use policy for more information.
Also published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations.