Will Tanks Turn the Tide for Ukraine?
Germany and the United States are sending Leopards and M1 Abrams tanks—but Washington’s desired endgame is still a mystery.
Matt Kroenig: Hi, Emma! Happy Birthday! It’s Debatable is nearly 3 years old.
Matt Kroenig: Hi, Emma! Happy Birthday! It’s Debatable is nearly 3 years old.
Emma Ashford: So the column is now leaving the Terrible Twos? That will be a relief for our readers!
MK: Does that mean we have to stop throwing tantrums? I thought that was why readers came to this column. I was looking forward to a mutual meltdown this week over tanks, corruption, and classified documents.
EA: I thought you’d be happy about the tanks. After all, Germany and the United States have both now agreed to send tanks to Ukraine; the United States will send a battalion’s worth of M1 Abrams tanks, and Germany will send two battalions of its Leopard tanks. I’ve never heard so many happy commentators in Washington—the way folks are talking, it sounds as if these tanks could win the war in a matter of weeks.
MK: You put it well on Twitter. The huge debate over tanks is really a proxy for the broader debate about strategy. Those who want to give the Ukrainians what they need to defeat Russia are in favor. Those who are more cautious or parsimonious were against.
I put myself in the former camp, so I am happy the tanks will be sent. But I am puzzled by the rapid about-face in both Washington and Berlin. And I am also not so naive as to think that a few armored vehicles are going to be the silver bullet that suddenly turns the tide of war.
EA: Let’s back up for just a minute, because I do think it’s an interesting political question. For readers who haven’t necessarily been following this closely, foreign-policy elites in Washington, Berlin, and various European capitals have been almost entirely consumed in recent weeks by the question of whether Germany would send tanks to Ukraine or not.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was hesitant to do so, and I think it was a more difficult problem than many in Washington gave the German government credit for. On the one hand, the Leopards are among the easier to master tank systems that could be transferred to Ukraine. On the other hand, there’s a host of good reasons why Scholz didn’t want to be in the lead on this, from escalation fears to German public opinion to the unpleasant historical echoes of German tanks killing Russian troops on the Eastern Front.
So I don’t quite understand why everyone has been so focused on this. The tank debate has taken on an outsized importance in conversations about Ukraine here in Washington.
MK: Where to begin? I agree. We have huge debates about each new step (Should we provide: Polish fighter aircraft, HIMARS, ATACMS, tanks, etc.?) without a clearly articulated strategy. If you don’t know where you want to go, any route can get you there.
But what I found more frustrating this week was the idea that Germany should lead on this. The Biden administration keeps making the mistake that Europe exists as a coherent entity and will act on its own without U.S. leadership. It is “lead from behind” 2.0. The United States is still the leader of the trans-Atlantic alliance, and, of course, Germany was not going to stick its neck out on this issue without the United States at its side.
I also found the Biden administration’s messaging frustrating. A few days ago, they strenuously argued that Abrams tanks make no sense in Ukraine because they are hard to operate and maintain. A few days later, they announced that the United States would send 31 tanks. Why not just say they are considering the issue but no decision has been made, rather than swing from one extreme to the other overnight?
EA: I think it’s pretty clear that the Abrams tanks are only being sent in order to facilitate the German tank transfer, given the obvious drawbacks in the plan. For one thing, the Abrams are being purchased from manufacturers, not pulled from U.S. stockpiles, so they won’t get to Ukraine for at least six months or more. And, as you note, even the Biden administration has been clear about how operationally challenging these tanks can be—in particular, the fact that they consume massive amounts of fuel.
But I’m frustrated for the exact opposite reason: If Washington really wants Europe to step up, then why is Washington stepping in to save face for Berlin? Again and again in this conflict, we have seen the White House jump in rather than push for European states to do more. Other than the Eastern European states closest to Russia—and the United Kingdom—most countries in Europe aren’t stepping up as they should in the military space.
The more important question might be whether these tanks will really make a difference. You alluded above to the idea that these are weapons without a strategy.
MK: Yes. We agree that Washington is providing weapons piecemeal without a strategy. I suspect we disagree strongly on what the strategy should be. I think the goal should be for Ukraine to win. Instead of debating each weapons system, let us state victory as the goal and give Kyiv the weapons it needs to fight this war the way NATO would fight it: combined arms operations with fighter aircraft, tanks, infantry, long-range artillery and missiles, air and missile defenses—everything except nuclear weapons!
So the provision of these tanks on their own will certainly help but only at the margins. At this rate, the United States is prolonging the conflict by giving the Ukrainians a drip, drip, drip of weapons—just enough to stay in the ring but not enough to knock the Russians out.
EA: That’s half right. Washington debates every individual weapons system: Will ATACMS allow Ukraine to strike deep inside Russia territory and thus escalate the war? Will tanks allow Ukraine to threaten Crimea and thereby cause nuclear escalation? The debate is backward: U.S. leaders should be deciding their strategic goals and limitations and then framing the choice of weapons within that.
I do disagree with you about giving the Ukrainians everything they ask for. Washington has its own interests, which don’t always align with Kyiv’s, and simply responding to every request with a debate about whether to send a certain system is not the way to manage those interests. It’s a recipe for a slippery slope into overcommitment.
I also would quibble with your statement that the United States is providing the Ukrainians with a “drip, drip, drip of weapons.” By my estimate, the U.S. government has provided a huge fountain of weapons. It’s practically an Old Faithful-level geyser of weapons to Ukraine. The United States has sent so many weapons that U.S. military leaders are getting worried that the country isn’t keeping enough for its own troops! The problem isn’t too few weapons. The problem is that Washington appears to be completely incapable of having an actual discussion about how and where it wants this war to end.
MK: But you and I are capable of having that discussion, and my answers to your questions are clear. Strategic goals: Ukraine takes back its sovereign territory, including Crimea. Russia loses and pays war reparations. The limitations: no nuclear weapons. The choice of weapons: everything else Ukraine needs to win.
EA: What about the problem of declining U.S. stockpiles of weapons and ammunition? Should the United States and its allies just empty out their stocks? There are real problems with increasing the production rate on many of these systems and ammunition types. Giving Ukraine everything it asks for risks leaving the United States exposed in other potential conflicts.
Never mind the escalation risks of openly supporting Ukraine’s desire to retake Crimea, a peninsula that holds the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet!
MK: I have an answer for that, too. The post-Cold War world is over. The United States and its allies need to drastically increase defense spending (at least 3-5 percent real growth year on year) and revitalize their defense industrial bases for a new era in which they face two near-peer, nuclear-armed rivals in Russia and China. In a way, the rapidly depleting stockpiles from the war in Ukraine are a blessing because they woke up Western defense officials to the limitations of their defense industrial bases in a proxy war before the United States itself was actively engaged.
And U.S. leaders should not be worrying more about the escalation risks than Russian President Vladimir Putin. The risks cut both ways, and the most likely bad outcomes (such as a direct NATO-Russia war) are more frightening for Moscow than they are for Washington. There are many plausible scenarios in which Putin loses his regime, for example. Let him swerve first.
EA: Wow. Well, I think the U.S. defense budget is a bloated mess. That said, you’re right that the war in Ukraine has shown that it just doesn’t meet actual U.S. defense needs. Washington spends almost a trillion dollars each year on defense but burned through its supplies of Stingers within months. The country has spent so much money on high-tech boondoggles like the F-35, and it barely has enough ammunition for a short, high-intensity conflict. No matter what you want the United States to do—fight against near-peer competitors, arm proxies, etc.—it’s not working. So I’d like to see smarter spending, not more spending, but I think we agree that the U.S. Defense Department needs a good kick.
Speaking of domestic political problems, it’s not just Putin who is having some trouble with his elites at home. This week saw a corruption scandal in Ukraine, as President Volodymyr Zelensky fired nine top officials over allegations of war profiteering and corruption. If it’s genuine anti-corruption, that would be a big step forward for Ukraine, which has always had serious problems with kleptocracy. But, of course, there’s always the possibility that it’s an attempt to shore up Zelensky’s power at home by purging potential political rivals. That’s always the problem with so-called anti-corruption campaigns in a state like Ukraine: Genuine reform can be indistinguishable from bad political motives.
MK: I am happy to see my tax dollars going to help Ukraine and weaken Russia, a major U.S. adversary. I am not happy to see my tax dollars going to buy dachas for corrupt Ukrainian officials. This kind of graft is an Achilles’s heel that could undermine Ukraine’s international support and the war effort.
I was pleased, therefore, to see Zelensky take rapid action to hold people accountable. And, on a more hopeful note, maybe this will be the motivation Ukraine needs to finally get its corruption problems under control. Historians argue that the United States made progress on civil rights in the 1960s in part because it was what the Cold War competition required. So it wouldn’t be the first time that international pressures helped a country improve its domestic political situation.
EA: Yes, it’s definitely ironic. Back when I was in graduate school and writing about Ukrainian politics, the country was widely viewed as one of the most corrupt in the post-Soviet space—and that is saying something. But as various observers have pointed out, this war may actually undermine the power of Ukraine’s oligarchs in ways that improve the corruption problem. So again: I hope that this is what it seems and that the Ukrainian government is serious about corruption. But Ukraine’s Western partners should remain at best cautiously optimistic about events such as this one.
Anything else you want to discuss today?
MK: Yes, it seems that we should say something about the classified documents controversy. In recent weeks, it was revealed that U.S. President Joe Biden stored classified documents at his home in Delaware and at the Penn Biden Center in Washington. This comes on top of an FBI raid of former President Donald Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, last year that turned up boxes of classified documents. Then, just this week, we found out that former Vice President Mike Pence also is in possession of unauthorized classified documents. When you add in Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, this means that the past three administrations have mishandled sensitive information in ways that could damage U.S. national security.
What is your take?
EA: Oh, for f—
(Editor’s note: FP permits only strategically—and stylistically—essential cursing.)
EA: Fine, fine, but it’s enough to make one want to scream. Mishandling documents does seem to be surprisingly common among top leaders. There are certainly degrees of seriousness here: Pence and Biden by all accounts found those documents while doing searches designed to check for missed documents, and their lawyers reported them immediately to the government. Clinton mishandled classified information throughout her tenure as secretary of state, forwarding classified emails to her personal email account; Trump purposefully kept highly classified documents and tried to hide that from the federal government.
So these things are not the same. But it does point to a general carelessness among elite politicians about things like classified documents—a sense that they don’t have to abide by the same rules as the average person in Washington. Add to that the scandals surrounding folks such as David Petraeus, who received only a slap on the wrist for giving classified material to his lover, and the end result is just corrosive in a city where a sizable chunk of the population will experience the inconvenience and unpleasantness of security screening and classification woes at some point in their careers.
MK: Hear, hear! I have held clearances and handled classified documents. There are special procedures in place. It is not easy to take classified documents home by accident. The cases are different, but in each case these leaders or their staff seem to have decided that the rules do not apply to them. I have seen people’s careers ruined over less severe security violations. I think all of these cases deserve to be taken seriously and that there should be consequences.
EA: Well, at least we can look forward to the next ridiculous “weapons to Ukraine” debate to cheer us up. Which U.S. weapons system do you think we’ll be arguing about sending next? F-16s? ATACMS? Chuck Norris?
MK: Ha. He is a legendary action hero. I can’t decide which Chuck Norris joke to tell, so I will send you and our readers off with my favorite 101.
Emma Ashford is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford
Matthew Kroenig is a columnist at Foreign Policy and vice president and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig
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