Ukraine needs at least 300 battle tanks to support large counteroffensive operations and push Russian forces out from all occupied territories, Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi told The Economist last December.
Russian war against Ukraine has already gone down in history as the biggest tank battle in Europe since World War II. Both Russia and Ukraine rely heavily on artillery and tanks. Since the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine started in February 2022, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have used only Soviet-era tanks to stall the advance of the invaders and counterattack.
Countries like Poland and the Czech Republic have already donated hundreds of Soviet tanks to Ukraine to replenish the losses incurred by the Ukrainian Army during the fierce fighting against the Russian forces.
Back in April 2022, Poland gave Ukraine more than 240 modernized Soviet-era T-72 tanks. Furthermore, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have captured a substantial number of Russian tanks on the battlefield over the past 11 months of the war.
It is absolutely not enough, as Russia has gigantic stockpiles of tanks that Ukraine can only dream of. On top of that, Ukraine’s allies all over the world seem to be running out of Soviet-era tanks to support Ukrainian resistance.
Soviet-era tanks for Ukraine
The Czech Republic remains one of the few countries that are still able to deliver Soviet-era tanks to Ukraine.
On 10 January 2022, the Czech Republic started shipping the first batch of 120 modernized T-72 tanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The upgraded tanks will have improved communication systems, thermal imagers, dynamic protection, and more powerful guns.
The modernization of these Soviet-era tanks has become possible due to the concerted efforts of:
- the United States
- the Netherlands
- the Czech Republic
- and an unnamed African country that donated 30 T-72s to Ukraine.
On 9 January, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala left his signature on one of the tanks that were modernized in his country to be delivered to Ukraine.
Petr Fiala wrote words of support to Ukrainian defenders on the high-caliber cannon of the tank’s turret. Unfortunately, there are no words that can save Ukraine from Russian aggression. 120 Soviet tanks cannot do that either. It is not enough. The Ukrainian Army needs much more to push Russian forces back.
Even these much-needed Soviet tanks won’t be delivered from the Czech Republic to Ukraine fast enough, as modernization will take time.
According to the Czech company Excalibur Army which upgrades Soviet tanks for Ukraine, it takes 66 working days to modernize one tank.
Ring exchange of tanks that never quite worked out
Even if there is a country that can still provide Ukraine with Soviet-era tanks, such tanks may only be delivered in a ring exchange for the German-made battle tanks Leopard 2, according to Defence Express.
Back in 2022, such a ring exchange of tanks between the allies of Ukraine proved to be ineffective several times.
For instance, in April 2022, the German government allegedly made a deal with Slovenia to deliver M-84 tanks to Ukraine in exchange for tanks Leopard 2 and infantry fighting vehicles Marder. M-84 is a Yugoslav copy of a Soviet tank T-72, which is the most widespread tank that Ukrainian forces currently operate.
However, the ring exchange between Slovenia and Germany did not work out as planned. For some reason, Slovenia ended up delivering tanks M-55S to Ukraine instead (a copy of older and less effective Soviet tanks T-55), Defence Express reported.
In May 2022, something similar happened with the ring exchange between Slovakia and Germany, Defense Express reported. Germany announced an agreement to send 30 German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Slovakia in exchange for 30 Soviet-era tanks T-72 that Slovakia planned to deliver to Ukraine.
Eventually, Ukraine got 30 old Soviet-era infantry fighting vehicles BMP-1 from Slovakia, while Germany provided Slovakia with only 15 Leopard 2 tanks in exchange.
Ukraine needs German and American tanks
With that being said, the decision to send either the German tanks Leopard 2 or the US tanks Abrams to Ukraine is the only alternative that can help the Ukrainian Armed Forces to deal with the depleted stockpiles of old Soviet-era tanks.
The voices supporting the delivery of modern Western-style tanks to Ukraine have become louder recently.
On 10 January, speaking at a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the head of the European Council Charles Michel, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she believes Ukraine’s allies should give it western-style battle tanks.
“I have said many times since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine: I think that Ukraine should get all the necessary military equipment they need and they can handle to defend the homeland. This means of course, advanced air defence systems, but also other types of advanced military equipment, as long as it is necessary to defend Ukraine,” von der Leyen said, answering questions about her position on Western-style tanks for Ukraine.
US Lieutenant General, the former commanding general of the US Army in Europe, Ben Hodges believes all policy reasons that stop Western allies from giving battle tanks to Ukraine must be left behind.
Hodges completely disagrees with the idea of tanks being perceived as offensive weapons that might lead to some unintended consequences. He claims that Western allies must give Ukraine modern battle tanks with no delay and stop overreacting to the possibility of any further Russian escalation.
“Ukraine needs tanks, like Abrams or Leopard. Of course, there are challenges for these, but still, these are capabilities that would be very useful for the next time when there is an offensive operation. Whether it is German, American, or French tanks, Ukrainian soldiers will learn how to operate them very quickly. It will take time to build up the maintenance support for Abrams or Leopards. But do not let that be an excuse, let’s get on with it,” Hodges said in his interview with Euromaidan Press.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies,
- the US Army has 2,645 Abrams tanks of various modifications in service and over 3,450 Abrams tanks in storage
- the Leopard 2 inventories of the European and NATO countries amount to around 2,400 tanks.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is reluctant to send battle tanks to Ukraine for fear of provoking Vladimir Putin, according to the Financial Times.
The recent decision of the UK to provide Ukraine with 14 Challenger 2 tanks may influence the position of the German government when it comes to the delivery of battle tanks to Ukraine.
Scholz’s spokesperson said on 11 January that the delivery of British-made Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine is not going to change the decision of the German government to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine amid the growing calls for Germany to do so.
Poland considers donating to Ukraine its German-made Leopard 2 battle tanks via a broader alliance of European countries.
Furthermore, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said on 12 January that Finland could donate a small number of German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine if a wider group of European nations also decided to do so.
German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck said that Germany “should not stand in the way” in this case, Die Welt reports.
Moreover, Habeck favored the announced the Polish delivery of Leopards to Ukraine:
“There is a difference between making a decision for yourself and preventing others from making a decision,” he said in Berlin on 12 January. “And accordingly, Germany should not stand in the way of other countries making decisions to support Ukraine, regardless of what decision Germany makes [for itself].”
Ukraine has repeatedly asked for modern battle tanks needed for the country’s effort to recapture the Russian-occupied territories, but German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declined all Ukraine’s requests.
The upcoming meeting of Western defense officials at the Ramstein military base in Germany on January 20, will probably ramp up the pressure on the German government as the UK would be the first country to supply Ukraine with modern Western-made battle tanks, according to Politico.
The decision to supply Ukraine with modern battle tanks has long become overripe. Ukraine urgently needs more military support to break the deadlock and launch a successful counteroffensive within the next months, which is absolutely impossible without modern battle tanks.
While Russia plans to mobilize 500,000 conscripts, setting conditions for a new large-scale offensive, Ukraine and its Western allies have no time to waste.
- US decision to supply Bradleys to Ukraine may pave way to tanks
- Ukraine may get modern battle tanks in future, Stoltenberg says
- Russia likely preparing decisive strategic action in Ukraine in the next six months – ISW
- Poland to give Ukraine a company of Leopard 2 tanks as “part of an international coalition” – PAP
- “We need these tanks” – new Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany about Leopard 2 tanks
- Germany shouldn’t deny German-made tank supplies to Ukraine by third parties, Germany Vice Chancellor Habeck believes
- Rheinmetall can’t deliver Leopards earlier than 2024 to Ukraine even if Berlin approves delivery tomorrow
- EU, NATO vow to expand cooperation amid Russian war
- Ukraine to liberate Crimea by end of August 2023 – Ben Hodges