There is much to celebrate in the collective decision by Ukraine’s Western supporters to again upgrade security assistance to Kyiv with modern armor systems including the well-regarded German Leopard 2. There is little doubt the new weapons systems will eventually make a substantial impact on the battlefield. Kyiv’s tank troops are elated with the decision, their tanks are old, and parts and ammunition are becoming scarce. Hence, the call to “send in the tanks.”
That said, the delayed approval of the transfer decision has further slowed the delivery of both the tanks and their requisite training, logistics and maintenance support. These will not be operationally relevant until the summer now, giving Russia more time to dig in or devise countermeasures. The US topline tank, the M1A2 Abrams, is not going to be delivered until late 2023, at best. In hindsight, this was a decision that would have been better timed if made three months ago.
The debate that delayed that decision cost the Ukrainians the chance to take the initiative. As George Barros from the Institute for the Study of War noted in a recent interview, “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.” The extended discussions more than degraded such operations; it has deleted that opportunity this winter entirely. Now the Russians have more time to prepare their defensive fortifications or launch their own counteroffensive before the Ukrainians have been augmented. The additive tanks will not be on the ground in time for Ukraine to use them in the near term, while Russian forces are cold and tired. They remain vulnerable for now, but that window could be closing as General Valery Gerasimov scrambles to reconstitute his mauled units and create an offensive capability to satisfy Vladimir Putin’s imperial illusions.
The delay is understandable given the domestic politics inside Germany. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz sought and got political top cover for a risky move that some of his base thought was being pushed on Germany by allies. The American reluctance to introduce the world’s heaviest, jet fuel–guzzling, technologically loaded tank was a useful excuse for him to hide behind. But the US administration changed its position, which gave Scholz support to relent and give Kyiv the tanks necessary if it hopes to recover lost territory. The entire episode did little to enhance the chancellor’s international reputation, but Germany’s domestic politics account for that.
The decision to upgrade the Ukrainian military’s combat power with these tanks has an immediate effect, but not in the way many anticipate (or if the decision had been made months ago). The tread heads in the tank community will point to the heavy metal. But there is a psychological impact that comes with all this hardware too.
The first shock is for Moscow, which now discovers that its saber-rattling no longer paralyzes decisions in Berlin or Brussels. Augmenting that, the government in Kyiv is now reinforced, belatedly, with the West behind it, with a high-quality armor upgrade. The signal being sent with up to perhaps three hundred heavy tanks is that the democracies are committed not only to the near-term fight but to Ukraine’s postwar security. Even that fact will seep into the Kremlin’s dull decision calculus.
Second, at the operational level, the Ukrainian military gets a psychological boost knowing that the Western armor and munitions are coming. While Ukraine’s forces may be tired or worried about the upcoming spring offensives, they now realize they not only will have the tools needed to deflect a Russian thrust, but now will have the capability to execute offensive maneuvers of their own to regain territory. This extra component, a mailed fist, will allow them to initiate their own offensive with greater confidence and lethality. Combined with the fighting vehicles previously approved, they can anticipate decreased operational losses and greater maneuver capacity.
Finally, the Russian troops in the front line, whether they are sitting in a trench or in a T-72 from the 1st Guards Tank Army, realize what is now coming. They sit there now in the cold in Ukraine or just across the border, realizing that the chances of operational success in gaining more territory this year just went down appreciably. That reality may not ever sink in for Putin and his circle of sycophants in the warm halls of Moscow, but it will be much clearer to the average Russian soldier in Luhansk or Crimea that the chances of survival (much less success) just got slimmer. The Russian morale is brittle given the length of the conflict to date, and the revolving military leadership team is going to find the task of motivating the next cohort thrown into the meat grinder that much more difficult.
One of the chief lessons of the war so far is that human factors remain paramount. Technology is important, but what mattes more is the ability to apply it effectively. Americans have a strong bias toward technology and hardware, and overlook what Michael C. Davies and I termed the human domain. The Ukrainians have clearly demonstrated a competitive edge in morale, will to fight, and improvisation. It is possible that Russia’s mobilization, including the convicts being released to fight in Ukraine with the Wagner Group, will finally offset Kyiv’s manpower advantage. However, it is extremely unlikely that it will offset the qualitative superiority of those Ukrainians committed to defending their homeland. For that reason, the prospects for Ukrainian operational success this summer just got better.
In sum, the tanks themselves are not a game changer but they provide a competitive edge in both the materiel and moral dimensions of this war.
Russia’s past performance in this theater raises a lot of questions about its agility and endurance, despite the efforts to mobilize fresh troops and put the economy on a war footing. A number of questions have to be answered. Will the hastily mobilized conscripts of Putin’s regenerated force be any better? Unlikely. Can the Russian military overcome its overly centralized command structure, limited communications, and poor troop quality? Also unlikely. Will Russia adapt its force design and its crude tactics to overcome their limitations? Possibly. Will it continue to simply batter the Ukrainians with massive amounts of artillery or will it employ the next generation of drones in more creative ways, perhaps targeting the Ukrainian military’s now larger and hence more vulnerable logistics tail? Not likely at all.
As the analysis team at the Institute for the Study of War notes, Russia should be expected to be more careful about heavy losses with this next cohort of conscripted soldiers than it was with convicts and Wagner mercenaries over the winter. As the team’s report observed, “The Russians’ ability to execute large-scale rapid offensives on multiple axes this winter and spring is thus very questionable.” Time will soon tell. Both sides could introduce surprises, possibly in the air or in electronic warfare, that tip the balance one way or another.
As Columbia University professor and landpower scholar Steve Biddle has argued, offensive maneuver remains necessary in warfare, and the next campaign should reinforce that fundamental reality. We can expect that tanks, in both the offense and defense, will also show that the tank is not obsolete, even if it is increasingly vulnerable. The open terrain in the east and an adversary without the modern loitering munitions and antiarmor systems employed to date favor success with the armor the Ukrainians have asked for. The only doubt is how much time will be needed to absorb them and integrate them into the operational and logistics systems supporting Kyiv’s forces. Some well-informed analysts think armored fighting vehicles may be more valuable than the slower tanks, combining greater mobility and speed for offensive operations while bringing Ukraine’s infantry into positions of advantage. Moreover, as Mike Kofman has noted, true combined arms warfare requires airpower as well as steel on the ground. For Kyiv to be successful, it will have to demonstrate that it can exploit the air domain in some form.
The stalemate I projected last April came to pass, until the success of Ukraine’s surprising sweep into Kharkiv against thin defenses last September. Ukraine has doggedly extended that success by pushing Russia backward in the south into more defensible positions, again with selective strikes on command-and-control posts and the aggressor’s key logistics nodes. To press their attack further and unhinge the Russian line, Ukrainian forces will have to upgrade the maneuver component of their campaign and integrate their fires better at the operational level. In addition to shortfalls in offensive air and air defense, Kyiv remains short on long-range artillery as shown by an recent valuable report by the Polish Institute for International Affairs.
All told, the Leopards, Challengers, and Abrams are clearly not an instant game changer given the balance of forces in the battlespace. The tanks are not without problems. They present new training and logistics challenges, as noted in these pages. The Ukrainian people, however, have proven quite agile at absorbing and adapting Western tech to their needs. The advanced training to operationally apply this hardware is ongoing already at a base in Grafenwoehr, Germany. In contrast, Russia has proven surprisingly inept at learning, giving the edge in the battle of adaptation to Kyiv so far. The anticipated campaigns of this spring and summer will be the final test of Gerasimov’s and the Russian General Staff’s badly tattered credibility.
Nine months ago, I wrote here that Ukrainians would be hard pressed to conduct combined arms maneuver to regain lost ground. That is now an outdated judgment. This time, with nearly a year of grueling combat experience under their belts and the reinforcements they are getting, we should be much more optimistic. It will not be mass, but maneuver and moral factors that will dominate. Better employment of materiel, not just raw quantity, will serve the Ukrainians well in the face of the mindless attrition we’ve seen from the Russian machine.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy needs military success to increase his bargaining position at any subsequent negotiations. Regaining the four occupied oblasts is key to convincing Putin he’s lost. Success will not happen in the near term, regrettably. But it is looking more likely over the course of this year.
Dr. Frank Hoffman is a retired Marine Reserve infantry officer and former DoD official. He currently works at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Marco Dorow, Allied Joint Force Command Naples