Tanks, but No Tanks

The United Kingdom and Eastern Europe are pushing for the United States and Germany to seriously arm Ukraine—and quickly.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Two Leopard 2 main battle tanks participate in NATO military exercises.
Two Leopard 2 main battle tanks participate in NATO military exercises.
Two Leopard 2 main battle tanks of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, participate in the NATO Iron Wolf military exercises in Pabrade, Lithuania, on Oct. 27, 2022. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Western officials are in a heated standoff over sending Ukraine upgraded weapons ahead of a meeting in Germany this week, where a hawkish push to send Kyiv upgraded tanks and long-range weapons is being met with resistance from top brass in the United States and Germany. 

Friday’s meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, which is set to convene senior defense leaders from roughly 50 countries to discuss military aid to Ukraine, comes as Ukrainian and Western officials believe the war may be approaching another inflection point amid reports that Moscow could be preparing another mobilization drive ahead of a renewed spring offensive. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday on a trip to Washington, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said it was “inevitable” that Russia would need to launch some form of mobilization as its forces continue to take heavy losses. 

“We can’t allow this to drag on and become a kind of First World War attritional-type stalemate,” Cleverly said. “Which is why we think that now is the time to intensify our support for Ukraine.”

Western officials are in a heated standoff over sending Ukraine upgraded weapons ahead of a meeting in Germany this week, where a hawkish push to send Kyiv upgraded tanks and long-range weapons is being met with resistance from top brass in the United States and Germany. 

Friday’s meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, which is set to convene senior defense leaders from roughly 50 countries to discuss military aid to Ukraine, comes as Ukrainian and Western officials believe the war may be approaching another inflection point amid reports that Moscow could be preparing another mobilization drive ahead of a renewed spring offensive. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday on a trip to Washington, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said it was “inevitable” that Russia would need to launch some form of mobilization as its forces continue to take heavy losses. 

“We can’t allow this to drag on and become a kind of First World War attritional-type stalemate,” Cleverly said. “Which is why we think that now is the time to intensify our support for Ukraine.”

The back-and-forth tussle, which dates back months, has heated up as Ukrainian troops have been sucked into deadly clashes with Russian infantry and mercenary fighters in the Donbas over the winter. Led by Russian private military contractor Wagner Group and coming at great cost in human life, Russian forces have been able to make “incremental” progress in recent weeks, John Kirby, the U.S. National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, said in a call with reporters on Wednesday. 

Both Ukrainian and Western officials are increasingly concerned about Kyiv’s rate of attrition, and some are hoping it will finally be a turning point for the United States to send long-range missiles that have been held back and for Germany to greenlight the dispatch of its advanced Leopard 2 tanks. And with Russia’s full-scale invasion nearing the one-year mark, U.S. officials are increasingly open about Ukraine’s need for better weapons to liberate occupied areas. 

“There is a need to reach beyond the front line, and without going into details, I will say that we acknowledge this need in the current phase,” Colin Kahl, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters during a trip to Kyiv over the weekend. “And we should think about how to help Ukraine overcome this challenge.” 

As the conflict has evolved, from Russia’s failed attempt to take Kyiv in the opening phases of the invasion to the grinding war of attrition currently being fought in the wide open plains of the Donbas, the nature of Western military aid has sought to keep apace with the changing needs of the Ukrainian armed forces. In late December 2022, the United States announced plans to send advanced surface-to-air Patriot missile batteries to Ukraine to bolster the country’s defenses against a barrage of Russian missile strikes, with Germany to send an additional missile battery. In a visit to Washington on Tuesday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also announced that his country would follow suit. 

“That support has evolved as the conflict has evolved,” Cleverly said. The priority is “now making sure Ukraine has the armor and heavy artillery they need to successfully push back in the east and the south.”

As fighting has intensified in the Donetsk region in recent months, so too has Ukraine’s need for tanks and armored personnel carriers. Over the weekend, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced plans to send 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, becoming the first Western country to dispatch modern main battle tanks to the country. 

Ukrainian officials have framed the promise of tanks and new vehicles from the West as a possible lifesaver for troops in the field. Sasha Ustinova, a Ukrainian lawmaker, told Foreign Policy that the majority of vehicles pouring into Ukraine currently are mostly from crowdsourcing and are mostly used and cheap, often breaking down at a moment’s notice and lacking the armor needed to take the fight to the Russians. 

“We have people driving civilian cars and dying because they run into mines,” Ustinova said. But the tanks promised by the United Kingdom fall far short of estimates by Ukraine’s commander in chief, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, who said it will take 300 modern main battle tanks to break through in the Donbas. The Ukrainian armed forces have relied on Soviet-era T-72 tanks in the battle thus far. 

While the United States and European countries have provided light armored vehicles, such as the French AMX-10 RC and American-made Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, Ukrainian and European officials have zeroed in on German-made Leopard 2 tanks. Considered to be one of the best Western tanks and in use by more than a dozen European nations, there are an estimated 2,300 Leopard 2s in the stockpiles of NATO countries. Its efficient engine, which runs on diesel, is thought to be better suited to Ukraine’s needs amid wartime fuel shortages. Germany has indicated to U.S. officials that it will not send Leopard tanks unless the U.S. Defense Department ships Abrams main battle tanks to Ukraine, something that appears to be off the table for the foreseeable future.

The tanks are expected to be a focus of Friday’s meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. While Ukraine’s Western allies have sought to present a united front as they coordinate military aid to Ukraine, the German government has come under increased pressure to dispatch some of its tanks to Ukraine or at least give permission to third countries, such as Finland and Poland, to export some of the German-made tanks from their own stockpiles. 

Ahead of the meeting in Ramstein on Friday, Wallace, the British defense secretary, is set to meet with his counterparts from the Baltic states and Poland on Thursday as part of a last-minute effort to push German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to approve the export of tanks to Ukraine, the Guardian reported.

People close to Ukraine’s military leadership increasingly believe that the armed forces’ ability to take back more territory will depend on how many tanks they’re able to get from the West. So-called Canadian LAV vehicles and American Strykers are also soon set to reach Ukraine. But the problem is made worse by shortages of Soviet-caliber tank ammunition within the NATO alliance to supply Ukraine, which is still using Warsaw Pact-era armor. 

“A few tanks have been able to spearhead the Kherson and Kharkiv offensives, but they’re incredibly costly,” said Daniel Rice, president of Thayer Leadership, an executive leadership development organization, who is also serving as an advisor to Ukraine’s military chief. “I don’t know if they can sustain that from a manpower standpoint, or from a casualty and attrition standpoint, to take the entire country back without an armored force. That’s why they really need armored columns.” Zaluzhny has also expressed a desire to standardize Western equipment coming into Ukraine. 

Another key item on Ukraine’s wishlist is long-range ammunition. But despite Ukrainian officials giving assurances from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as well as other officials since the summer that long-range weapons would not be fired into Russia, the Biden administration has held back as it weighs the risks of escalating tensions with Moscow. 

And Ukrainian officials have not kept quiet ahead of the roughly 50-nation summit set to begin in Germany this week. To hammer home the point about the potential for their battlefield gains to vanish, Ukrainian officials have been busily scheduling briefings for British officials to convey across the NATO alliance their need for high-end weapons systems, such as heavy tanks and long-range artillery. 

“[Ukraine has] been very blunt with the Pentagon that what we’re providing them is not addressing these critical gaps,” said a senior congressional aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They need to be able to hit shit farther away. And it’s hard to retake territory without an armored fist.” 

British officials, who have previously lobbied the Biden administration behind the scenes not to downgrade Russia as a U.S. national security threat and to maintain U.S. nuclear declaratory policy, are also making themselves a factor in other ways. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who remains a member of the country’s parliament, wrote a pointed Wall Street Journal op-ed in December 2022 calling for NATO countries to speed up weapons deliveries to Ukraine and tamp down escalation fears. Johnson is set to visit Washington early next month to make the case in person. 

The lobbying has intensified as Ukraine’s military position appears to be slowly deteriorating in recent weeks. 

While Ukrainian intelligence is warning of a second major Russian military mobilization, Ukraine lacks the institutional ability to train its own forces, leaving Western officials and military observers increasingly worried about a possible troop shortage after months of being on the front foot. And the pace of Western training—taking place in Poland, Latvia, Britain, and the United States—isn’t moving fast enough to boost numbers. Even younger Ukrainian troops, trained in Soviet-era tactics that focus on leveling opposing forces with artillery, are learning basic tasks like zeroing in their service weapons to adjust for elevation and air resistance. 

“They’re frustrated that the senior policymakers, not just in the Biden administration but in some other countries on the civilian side, don’t really understand the operational realities of the war,” the senior congressional aide said. Russia has also begun solidifying defensive fortifications in much of the territory it has occupied in Ukraine since its full-scale invasion in February 2022, and it has moved logistics nodes farther back out of the range of Western-provided multiple rocket launch systems, limiting the ability of the weapons to do damage as they did during Ukraine’s double-barred military offensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions last fall. 

Driving the long-vented frustration among Zelensky and his advisors is the increasingly noticeable gap between military aid pledged and what’s actually arrived in Kyiv as well as worsening Russian attacks against civilian targets. On Saturday, a Russian missile struck an apartment building in Dnipro, Ukraine’s fourth-largest city, killing 45 people, including six children, Zelensky said on his Telegram account on Tuesday.

Behind the scenes, the Biden administration has also been mulling a Boeing proposal to send Ukraine ground-launched small diameter bombs that could hit Russian targets nearly 100 miles away when paired with rocket motors that are plentiful in U.S. stockpiles. But within the Pentagon, officials are concerned that the fast pace of fighting could render the weapons, which would take nine months to prepare, mostly irrelevant. On the other hand, there is increasing concern in Eastern Europe that if NATO nations don’t send tanks and long-range weapons fast enough, Russia will be able to buy enough time to salvage its battlefield position with a second round of military call-ups. 

“​​If there is no breakthrough in the supply of offensive weapons to #Ukraine in Ramstein in a couple of days, #Russia will be given time to prepare for a new wave of mobilization,” Linas Linkevicius, a former Lithuanian minister of defense, tweeted today. “Putin will gain his last hope to stay in power.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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