What are we doing in Ukraine?

Unrestrained and uncoordinated Western support would go against American and European national interests, undermining Europe’s defense capabilities and escalating the risk of nuclear confrontation with Russia.

On Wednesday, 25th of January, German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz ended weeks of frustration amongst Western states by announcing Germany’s intent to provide Ukraine with an undisclosed number of Leopard 2 main battle tanks, giving other allies such as Poland or Denmark permission to do the same.

Ukrainians received this news with great optimism, as Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov was lyrical in his thanksgiving, sharing a drawing of a running leopard followed by the battle system named after it.

Reznikov’s excitement is understandable as until now the United States and its allies had been relatively reluctant to provide “heavy” weaponry to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). Instead, Western military support mostly consisted of armored personnel carriers (Stryker, Véhicule Avant Blindés), air defense systems (Stingers, Patriot batteries, Crotales, …), anti-tank and anti-ship missiles (NLAWs, Javelin, AT-4…) as well as artillery systems (CAESAR, HIMARS, M-109). France has recently announced its intent to send 12 more CAESAR cannons, bringing its contribution of these systems to 30.

Alongside Germany, Great Britain has also consented to send ‘a squadron of 14 Challenger II tanks.’ France previously announced its intention to provide Ukraine with an unspecified number of AMX-10 RCs, wheeled tank destroyers armed with a 105mm cannon. Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Poland have also announced their openness to sending Leopards of their own. The most significant form of assistance to Ukraine nevertheless remains the United States’ very recent announcement to supply 31 M1 Abrams tanks to the AFU, widely considered to be the highest-performing ground battle system in the world.

Western states’ decision to supply Ukraine with main battle tanks and other heavy cavalry fighting vehicles marks an important escalatory step in the military aid supplied to Ukraine. Further than helping the Ukrainians to defend themselves, the supply of such systems is also clearly a means to allow the AFU to go on the offensive, recapturing lost territory and, in good time, ‘win the war.’

The decision by the West to supply Ukraine with heavy armor nevertheless raises significant issues, the first of which is timing. The AFU is still a long way from putting these tanks into action, as General Robert Abrams has stated in an interview to the New York Times. Gen. Abrams is particularly concerned about the logistics attached to such a delivery as well as the maintenance of these complex systems, which would heavily affect their durability. Shipping these tanks, their fuel, and munitions will take several months at best. This is less of an issue for the Leopard tanks, which should be available within three months according to Scholtz.

The United States must also address the issue of training of crews and mechanics. In the past, Ukrainian troops have only ever employed less advanced Soviet-era tanks such as refurbished T-72s or T-60s. Would the United States be willing to send technical advisors to Ukraine, putting them in harm’s way? The United States had about 150 military advisors in Ukraine before the war, inspecting and overseeing American material aid. In addition to being a tragedy, the death of U.S. service personnel in this conflict would be a dangerous eventuality. The more plausible option would be to train Ukrainian tank crews outside of Ukraine, but this means leaving them unavailable for service for some time. Russia’s armed forces are currently conducting offensive operations in the area of Luhansk and Bakhmut. Other troops are massing across the Belarusian border in preparation for a new offensive. Ukraine will therefore need as many tank crews as possible over the next few months, forcing the Ukrainians to choose between training speed and maintaining their current defense capabilities.

The wide diversity of systems donated to the AFU is a further issue affecting training. A choice will have to be made between training crews on all these systems (which would therefore take more time) or only one, which would reduce their flexibility. These different systems also use different munitions, a further logistical complication. Challenger tanks are unable to shoot the same munitions as the Abrams or France’s Leclerc, despite their use of identical calibers. This blunder is an added source of confusion and logistical cost for the Ukrainians, who will therefore have to manage separate stocks of 120mm ammunition for British tanks. Both issues manifest a blatant lack of coordination within the Western defense industry, which should have allowed for the use of common weapons systems or, at least, common standards for ammunition and other consumables. This shortcoming has instead weakened the speed and straightforwardness of Western aid to Ukraine and, more worryingly, demonstrates a lack of interoperability among NATO military systems.

The delivery of these tanks may even prove a liability for European states. The defensive posture of the Old Continent is already remarkably weak. The United States has an estimated 8,000 Abrams tanks in reserve and could even provide its tanks via allied users such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia. This story is strikingly different for European states, including the main military powers of France and the United Kingdom. While both armies stand out in their level of expertise, they are also characterized by their lack of depth.

This is the heritage of the West’s defense policy following the Cold War: according to the French think tank L’Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, European states have decreased their tank stocks by 66% between 1999 and 2014. France’s armored capabilities have therefore fallen from more than 1300 tanks to about 220 today. The aging of European military systems also compounds the issue of depth. The Leopard 2 is only meant to remain in service until 2030, yet projects of a joint Franco-German Main Ground Combat System meant to replace the Leclerc and the Leopard have stalled, bogged down by disagreements between both states. The United Kingdom is also heavily affected by the aging of its systems: the British Army has been delayed in its delivery of new armored personnel carriers, and must therefore partially manage with Warrior and FV432s, with the latter dating back to the 1960s! While added investment in the defense domain has prompted hope for more modern and abundant systems, production will take time.

The deterioration of Europe’s defensive posture must be viewed in the context of the United States’ progressive shift towards the Indo-Pacific region and the faceoff with China. While the conflict in Ukraine has provided a brief resurgence of American interest in European affairs, ‘out-competing China’ and ‘promoting a Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ remain the United States’ primary objectives, as outlined in the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy. Even before the war, from 2017 to 2021, American arms exports to Europe rose by 17%. This high level of exchange remains a sign of good relations between the United States and its European allies. It can also be interpreted as a sign of the Old Continent’s anxiety, and its growing awareness that it may need to assure its defense.

Finally, the United States and its allies have yet to determine a common vision for their role in this conflict. The end goal asserted by Western states to justify aid to Ukraine has been at best contradictory and vague. Until recently, foreign aid has been granted to Ukraine as a means of defending its “people, its sovereignty and its territorial integrity”, in the words of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. What is the aim of Western support? Does it seek to give the means for Ukraine to recapture the regions it lost in 2014? Or does it aim for a stalemate, hoping Russia and Ukraine will agree on an (unlikely) ceasefire? Zelensky seems determined to retake the territories it ceded to Russia in 2014. Yet this objective may not be shared by all of Ukraine’s Western backers, seen as too ambitious and costly in terms of material support. Answers to these questions are likely to differ even amongst the states supporting Ukraine today. This lack of commonly established objectives is a legitimate source of worry, potentially dividing states in their efforts due to differing visions of national interest.

The decision to increase support for Ukraine is not a flawed one in and of itself. Supporting the Ukrainians is a political necessity, and it has so far proved a reasonable wager against Putin’s expansionism.  Western reluctance to check Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be interpreted as weakness and therefore invite further aggression. The West’s donation of tanks is nevertheless problematic in its timing, its nature, and most importantly, its aims. Europeans in particular must remain cautious in their military support to Ukraine. Russia has taken notice of the boundary crossed by the delivery of offensive systems to the Ukrainian armed forces. Some Russian pundits argue that European ‘co-belligerency’ justifies nuclear strikes and covert attacks against European states. The more Putin perceives the West as responsible for any defeat, the more unpredictable his actions will become. As Robert Kennedy puts it, “A hopeless man is a very desperate and dangerous man.” The West should not dismiss Russia’s nuclear rhetoric and must consider these threats as plausible; the consequences of miscalculating this risk are simply too high.

Rather than settling for an uncoordinated public relations stunt which may prove only marginally helpful for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, it would be advisable for states supporting Ukraine to first establish a common vision for the conflict’s outcome, adapting the nature of their aid to this perception. In particular, European states must focus on the development of their own means, expanding the capabilities of their armed forces through appropriate investment and furthering their integration within NATO and the EU. Only then will Western aid be truly efficient and durable, contributing to both Ukrainian and European security.

This article was a guest submission from Joseph Lee, a student in the Security Studies Program. Views given are the authors own.

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