Ukrainian defense officials are zeroing in on tank deliveries from the US and European partners, saying the firepower and security provided by the armored artillery vehicles will keep up the momentum in its efforts to rout the invading Russian forces.
The Biden administration has increased the heavy artillery it is providing Ukraine, but has done so slowly and incrementally to protect against perceptions that Washington is provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainian officials have welcomed the Biden administration’s recent announcement to supply armored vehicles with machine guns — Bradley fighting vehicles — but are pushing for Washington to commit to sending Abrams tanks.
“Bradley’s are like a sandwich, it’s good when you’re hungry. But an Abrams is like a full meal, it will really leave you satisfied,” Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s minister of defense, told The Hill.
Ukrainian officials say an announcement by the Biden administration that it would supply tanks would send an important political signal to Putin and Russia that the US and its allies are united in their support.
And it would also push back against concerns that a new Republican House majority threatens bipartisan backing for Kyiv, or that Europe’s solidarity is fracturing in the face of Moscow’s havoc, they say.
Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, told The Economist last month that Kyiv needs 300 tanks to achieve a decisive victory on the battlefield against Russia, along with 700 infantry fighting vehicles and 500 howitzers.
“I know that I can beat this enemy. But I need resources,” Zaluzhnyi told the Economist.
Abrams tanks are preferable to lighter vehicles due to strong armor, maneuverability, precise shooting system and a “shock effect,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, senior adjunct fellow with the Center for New American Security, and a lieutenant colonel in the Army reserves who has operated Abrams tanks.
“Historically, one of the reasons people had tanks and why they were invented was actually to take static situations and make them fluid,” he said. “If you have a good enough maneuver force you might be able to break through a defensive line and the maneuverability of a tank gives you the ability to take advantage of that.”
Sak said that 200 tanks to Ukraine could make a difference, and credits Western tanks as being safer than Russian or Soviet-era armored fighting vehicles.
“The level of armor and protection of personnel is better, the firing range is longer,” Sak said.
The US, in a $400 million military aid package to Ukraine announced in November, provided funds for the Czech Republic to refurbish 45 T-72, Soviet-era tanks for delivery to Ukraine. And Poland has reportedly already supplied Ukraine with more than 200 Soviet-era tanks.
But Ukrainian officials see the Western tanks as superior.
The Biden administration last week announced $3.75 billion in new military assistance to Kyiv, and that included 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and 36 additional Howitzers, among other ammunition and armaments.
Likewise, Germany committed to sending around 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles.
This builds on France committing its own version of the armored fighting vehicles, the AMX-10 RC.
Sak said that the decision by the US and Germany to deliver light armored vehicles represents the West overcoming a “mental block,” and that the Ukrainians are pushing for tanks, the US-made surface to surface missiles ATACMS, and fighter jets including American- made F16s and Swedish-made Grippins.
“Tanks are the next mental hurdle that the West needs to overcome in order to actually help Ukraine,” Sak said.
But the Biden administration still appears to see Abrams as a step too far, for now.
White House press secretary Karine Jean Pierre did not address a direct question Wednesday on whether President Biden is considering sending Abrams tanks to Ukraine.
“The president has made it clear, yes [Ukrainian] President Zelensky … the US will continue to have their back, stand with Ukraine as long as it takes, we’ve been very clear and consistent on that, we’re moving fast and delivering to support Ukraine the tools it needs to win this war .”
Given that the US has slowly offered more powerful weapons and combat vehicles for Ukraine, John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said the Biden administration is likely to eventually send the M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine.
He said there were several factors for the US that could sway officials in the direction of providing the tanks, including public pressure, losses in Ukraine and other NATO allies providing similar equipment.
“It will happen, it’s just a matter of when,” he said. “We know what triggers those decisions [but] there’s no real way to tell when precisely they’ll make that decision.”
Edmonds, of the Center for New American Security, said a large consideration is tank maintenance. While a three-to-six-month training program to operate the tanks could, in theory, be compressed to about a month, much more concerning is whether Ukrainian forces can maintain the operation of the Abrams.
“You’ve got complicated optics, you’ve got a fire control system that takes everything from atmospheric pressure to temperature into account, when it is telling you where to point the gun, and an engine on an [Abrams] M1 is a turbine engine, it’s not just a regular diesel engine. There would be challenges in maintaining them, I would think,” he said.
But, Edmonds added, he had not heard concerns or problems of maintenance with other weapons systems sent to Ukraine.
In Europe, the conversation on tanks is gaining steam.
The United Kingdom is reportedly weighing whether to ship Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine.
In Finland, Chairman of the Committee on Defense Affairs Antti Häkkänen reportedly said that if Europe started sending tanks to Ukraine, Helsinki could provide Leopard 2 tanks — German-made heavy fighting vehicles first introduced in the 1970s.
There are an estimated 2,000 Leopard tanks in Europe, according to the European Council on Foreign Affairs.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said Wednesday that Warsaw would send “a company of Leopard tanks” as part of an international coalition.
European countries in possession of Leopards likely need permission from Germany to transfer the fighting vehicles, although such provisions are specific to the individual contracts.
Steffen Hebestreit, spokesperson for the German federal government, said Monday that he was not aware of any such requests from Poland.
Edmonds added that providing tanks would send a signal of support that is just as important as the combat capabilities it would provide.
“It’s a significant level of commitment to the Ukrainian war,” he said.