Even in disarray, the message ends up being one of unity.
After weeks of Poland and other NATO members openly pressing Germany to permit the dispatch of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, finally it appears the United States and some of its European Union allies will send armor – a move that was unthinkable months ago – to the frontline against Russia.
It is a momentous decision, partly because these – unlike the air defense systems, or the anti-tank missiles – are not defensive weapons. Like the artillery and rocket systems that preceded them, they are intended to hit Russia’s troops hard in a ground offensive. But unlike those systems, they are unequivocally about Ukraine retaking territory. This is new, and fierce, and it portrays a NATO unafraid.
The combined US and European decision to send tanks to Ukraine is not the display of fractious democracies it might appear to be.
Throughout the weeks of dispute and badgering around Berlin’s reluctance to assist Kyiv, some in Moscow will have heard something different to disunity: a West contemplating sending its most aggressive armor to a state it considered unfit even to discuss NATO membership seriously with a year ago.
An alliance of the size, and varying histories, of NATO would always have some disagreements on how to handle the largest land war in Europe since World War II.
Poland has experienced the Soviet grasp, with many of its citizens able to remember how that version of Russian imperialism felt. Germany – under the Nazis – last let its tanks loose in the continent’s worst episode of bloodshed yet. Many senior figures in its towering Social Democratic Party (SPD) – home of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz – have been perilously close to the Kremlin. It would have been somewhat remarkable had these European powers all been on an identical page about this fight from day one.
But America’s plans to send a largely symbolic 30 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, according to two US officials familiar with the deliberations, have emboldened Germany enough to drop its objections to the Leopard. It provided a NATO umbrella for the move, even if it will take months, maybe years, to get the logistically complex American main battle tank into play.
Servicing and maintaining these tanks across Ukraine’s enormous expanses will be a stark challenge. But Washington’s willingness to take this task on speaks volumes about its commitment to the war and how it views Ukraine’s prospects for a wider victory.
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This latest burst of Western helps says two things. First, these nations are not concerned about breaching Russian “red lines.” The long-held belief is crumbling that some elements of NATO assistance to Ukraine could risk provoking a nuclear power too far.
Second, these NATO members are less concerned about being attacked by Russia itself in the imminent future: they are handing over weapons they would urgently need in the event of such a conflict. The Dutch decision to send all their Cesar artillery; the Norwegian decision to send a large proportion of their Leopards; both are testament to this. These NATO members think the decisive conflict with Russia will be in Ukraine, with Ukraine. And that might suggest they believe Moscow will not win.
Western inventories can be rebuilt or replenished, but it takes time – decades maybe. And NATO members are pledging equipment at such a pace that the last announcement is not in play before the next one comes.
Barely a month ago, the US pledged Patriot missile defense systems to Ukraine, and they are yet to arrive. Now the M1 Abrams tank may be en route. The practical effects may not be felt in time for a spring offensive by either side, Russia or Ukraine. But the message is palpable long before that. Western aid appears endless, constant and escalating.
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And this will be felt within the walls of the Kremlin. The Russian military is struggling to fashion a strategic plan around its constantly changing leadership, and to convert into substantial gains the brutal use of manpower as an endless and expendable resource.
For those around Russian President Vladimir Putin, the colossus of NATO aid is inescapable and surely weighing into how enduring their support for Putin is. This is not going away.
Yet a note of caution should be sounded. It is as precarious for the West to believe Russia has no red lines left, as it is for them to yield to the nuclear blackmail that has dogged so much of Russia’s invasion.
Moscow may appear relatively impotent right now, but the fortunes of this war have changed before and may change again.
Perhaps the weeks of public debate over escalating aid are intended to show Moscow that the West is cautious and respectful to what remains of the Kremlin’s ego.
But we are into territory here that was impossible to imagine a year ago, with NATO’s best attack technology soon in Ukrainian hands, and Russia seemingly able only to bark its frustration.