Will tanks set up Ukraine for a spring offensive?
Ukrainian soldiers will have to go through a steep learning curve when they get into the Leopard 2 tank for the first time next month. But the new tanks will be a major upgrade from the Soviet models they fought last year.
“It’s like having a car from the 1950s and then getting into a Porsche,” says a person who organizes training for the Ukrainian military.
The German government’s decision this week to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine – and allow other European capitals to do the same – will give the Ukrainian army vital new firepower as it sets out to liberate its country from Russian occupation.
With Ukrainian forces making a decisive offensive ahead of winter, Kyiv and its allies are now rushing to build new armored forces for a possible offensive this spring.
However, it may take several months for the bulk of the forces to arrive, and they may be much smaller than Kyiv had hoped. Some military analysts fear that Western tanks may not be the game changer many Ukrainians and their supporters imagined, even as Ukrainians talk about their potential.
“The question is, is 100, 150 enough. Well, that’s enough to make a difference,” says Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister.
For months, Berlin and other Western capitals have rejected Kyiv’s requests for Western main battle tanks, saying it was too difficult for Ukrainian forces to maintain and that there was a risk of provoking Moscow. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hesitated for weeks in the face of mounting pressure from the Allies and relented on a US promise to send some of its M1 Abrams tanks to Kyiv.
The policy change has been another turning point for Ukraine’s allies as they reassess Ukraine’s changing military needs and adjust their own escalation risk calculations. This sparked a celebration in Kyiv, where the slogan “liberate the Leopards” – the most widely available modern battle tanks – has become a symbol of the West’s willingness to support Ukraine all the way to victory.
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the steps taken by Germany and the United States to create an international tank coalition as a historic achievement. But he immediately questioned the scale of the commitment.
“Now the main thing is speed and volume,” he said.
Ukraine says it needs 300 Western heavy tanks to retake its territories. They are needed quickly to mount a widely anticipated offensive this spring and help repel a possible Russian attack before then.
US President Joe Biden laid out reasons why Ukraine needs modern tanks, reaffirming plans Wednesday to send 31 M1 Abrams.
“To liberate their land, they must be able to counter the changing tactics and strategy of Russia on the battlefield in the very near future. They should be able to improve their ability to maneuver in open areas,” he said. “And they need a strong capability to deter and defend against Russian aggression in the long term.”
The Abrams may be the fastest mass-produced heavy tank in the world, but it will be slow to arrive in Kyiv. The 31-strong contingent comes directly from the manufacturer using US government funding and could take months, if not more, to deploy. This gives enough time for training and possibly a long-term presence of American armored vehicles in Ukraine. But in the battles of 2023, this will mean little.
In the meantime, Ukraine will receive two divisions of Leopard 2s and one company of British Challenger 2s, totaling about 100 tanks.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, who is currently leading efforts to assemble a fleet of Leopard 2s from several European armies, says they will be brought to Ukraine in two phases: the first battalion of 40 Leopard 2s, including 14 from Germany, around three months and a second batch of an older version of the Leopard 2, including 14 from Poland, later. Spain may eventually become one of the largest suppliers of this second group, but it intends to use older Leopard 2s that have been mothballed and in storage for 10 years.
Finland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Canada are also expected to contribute.
Before they can enter the battlefield, not only the tank crew, but also the repair, maintenance and supply units must undergo serious training. Logistics support and supply chains also need to be established.
According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the tank crew will need at least five to six weeks of basic training. But Ukrainian forces have shown that they can quickly adapt to the multitude of weapons systems provided by the West.
“Ukrainian soldiers are known for being fast learners,” says Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director of the Razumkov Center think tank in Kyiv. After a year of war in Ukraine, now some of the most experienced tankers in the world.
However, the use of new tanks is not only the acquisition of technical know-how. It will also require tactical training – learning how to take advantage of Western battle tanks, such as their superior armor, range, and aiming.
To make the most of their firepower and compensate for their vulnerability, tanks need to integrate with infantry, artillery, air defense and electronic warfare systems – the so-called combined arms maneuver. This month, the United States began combined arms training for Ukrainians at the Grafenwöhr training ground in Bavaria.
“There are some units of the ground forces that are already operating as combined arms groups,” says Zagorodniuk. “Therefore, Ukraine will not start completely from scratch. But there’s a lot to learn.”
Ukraine’s allies donate not only tanks, but hundreds of infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled howitzers and other artillery pieces. This gives Ukraine an opportunity to learn how to integrate all this new equipment into offensive operations – provided it can free up enough troops from frontline combat.
“This means that we can train well-coordinated units at the same time,” says Johann Michel from IISS. “We need to make sure Ukrainians can get the most out of this.”
Coordinating donations in the form of tanks, artillery, armored vehicles and training to bring it all together will require Ukraine and its allies to “really, very hard climb,” according to U.S. General Mark Milley.
Ukrainian officials have said they want to launch the spring offensive while it gathers momentum and before Russia has a chance to regroup and train its hundreds of thousands of troops it has mobilized.
Ways of attack
Western officials and many analysts expect Kyiv to try to seize the initiative and take advantage of the heavy losses that Russian forces appear to have suffered in the fierce fighting around Soledar and Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. However, it is not clear how many losses Ukrainian forces also suffered in the battles around Bakhmut and how many additional troops Kyiv left for the counteroffensive. Military experts say that for the success of the offensive, the number of attacking troops must be three times greater than the defending ones.
One place where Ukraine might try to attack is the Svatovo-Kremennaya line, a front in the Luhansk region. A major breach there could jeopardize Russia’s north-south supply lines for its forces trying to capture the rest of the Donetsk region, one of Vladimir Putin’s main war targets.
A much bigger prize for Kyiv would be to move south into the Zaporozhye region, all the way to the Sea of Azov, cutting the so-called Russian land bridge into the occupied Crimea.
Any of these directions will pass through open areas, where mechanized forces will be indispensable, in contrast to the more urbanized Donetsk region.
But Russian defensive lines along both of these directions are likely to be more formidable than anything Ukraine has overcome so far. In the meantime, the Russians can attack first. Moscow held back about half of the 300,000 soldiers mobilized in the autumn, and with some training they could have been more effective than the first 150,000 thrown into battle.
“As we head into 2023, Ukraine no longer has a workforce advantage, and challenges lie ahead,” says Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at think tank CNA. “This will require a large number of armored fighting vehicles and, to a much lesser extent, tanks. Therefore, it is a numbers game where the more the better.”
Mykola Beleskov, an analyst at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, says tanks combined with artillery and infantry will be vital to any Ukrainian offensive or defensive operation. How many Western tanks Ukraine needs depends on the sequence of events on the battlefield, he said. If Russia attacks first and then weakens, giving Ukraine an opportunity to counterattack, Kyiv will need fewer forces. If Ukraine launches its own offensive, it will need more, because it will first need to break through the enemy defense line, and then conduct a second phase of encirclement and destruction of Russian troops.
Capturing a defensive position will ultimately require infantry to enter the trenches, says Rob Lee, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, adding that the key to success is getting your soldiers across open terrain protected from artillery fire. “In fact, little has changed in military affairs since or before World War II.”
“In some way, deliveries of Bradleys, Marders or Strykers and the like [infantry fighting] vehicles can make even more of a difference,” Lee says. Upgrading Ukrainian capabilities from a Soviet-era armored personnel carrier to a US-supplied Bradley could be more than switching from a T-72 to a Leopard tank.
“We should not jump to the conclusion that tanks alone will win this war,” he says. “But these are important contributions and they will give Ukraine a better chance of success in 2023 and 2024.”