Sending tanks to Ukraine makes one thing clear: this is now a western war against Russia

Sending more western tanks to support Ukraine does not mean, as some politicians occasionally come dangerously close to implying, that the war is now almost over – save only for the fighting. The Ukraine war will still last months, if not years, and today’s decisions are more of a strategic body swerve than a complete and fully executed U-turn. Nevertheless, this is an unmistakably big moment, and for three main reasons.

The first is that battle tanks give Ukraine a military advantage that, in the words of Ed Arnold of the Royal United Services Institute, could be transformative. The three types of western battle tank now being committed to Ukraine – the US’s M1 Abrams, Germany’s Leopard 2 and the UK’s Challenger 2 – are all significantly more powerful than the Soviet-era T-72s that form the bulk of the Russian and Ukrainian tank forces. The same goes for the French Leclerc tanks, whose dispatch to Ukraine has not been ruled out either.

These western tanks all have greater mobility, more lethal firepower and stronger armour than those used by Russia. This also makes them heavier, which gives the lighter Russian tanks an advantage on boggy ground, of which there is no shortage in Ukraine once the thaw takes place. Even so, the modern western tanks’ control and navigation systems give them an all-round ability to operate in combined manoeuvres involving artillery and infantry, including at night, that the Russians cannot match.

These advantages give western tanks the potential to break through Russian lines and control the shape of the conflict across significant stretches of occupied territory. The tanks would also play a key role in defending Ukrainian lines against counterattack. But the most alluring potential of these weapons to Ukraine and its allies is that, if they are as successful as the hype implies, they could eventually put Kyiv in a position to dictate ceasefire and peace terms to Moscow.

There is, though, a long way to go before that. Two immediate caveats stand out – numbers and logistics. Ukraine has pressed for 300 tanks. Today’s announcements in Berlin and elsewhere leave the number committed at fewer than 100. Arnold says this war has shown that you need a lot of tanks on a modern battlefield. The current western total is still way short.

There is also the not inconsiderable matter of getting the tanks to the frontline. The US’s tanks are apparently still in North America. They also need a lot of backup. The New York Times reported US officials warning that deployment could take years. Germany’s Leopards, by contrast, are in Europe and can be serviced in Ukraine’s neighbouring countries. All the same, they all have to get to the battlefield. Proper supply and maintenance lines must be established. This is a necessarily secretive area, but deployment will not happen at the flick of a switch.

A demonstration demanding that German chancellor Olaf Scholz ‘Free the Leopards’, Berlin, 20 January 2023.
A demonstration demanding that German chancellor Olaf Scholz ‘Free the Leopards’, Berlin, 20 January 2023. Photograph: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

The second reason why today’s decisions are a watershed is that Germany has stood up to be counted. Given that Germany has already spent more in support of Ukraine than any other European country (Britain included), and has sent large mobile guns and armoured vehicles, this may seem churlish, but Olaf Scholz leads a country that (unlike Britain or France) must permanently look both eastwards and westwards. He has held off committing tanks until the US could be persuaded to follow suit. He has acted in his own time rather than at the behest of freelance grandstanders such as Boris Johnson. Note, too, that the German commitment still remains limited, as is Washington’s, though it will doubtless grow.

There have been many reasons for German hesitation. Each is understandable in its own individual way. They include not wanting to be out of step with the US; the legacy of Germany’s 20th-century war history; reluctance to be Europe’s military leader; divisions in public opinion over military issues; the wish to maintain the three-party coalition government’s fragile unity; the appointment only last week of a new defence minister, Boris Pistorius; and – never, ever to be underestimated – anxiety over relations with Russia.

Yet the plain fact is that the need to defend Ukraine and to hold back the Russian threat transcends all of them. Scholz has finally crossed a Rubicon, albeit in a characteristically cautious manner that may serve to undermine some of his own objectives.

The final reason why this week’s announcements matter is that this is now, more clearly than before, a western war against Russia over the independence of Ukraine. That is not to say it is a war the west has sought. Nor that Ukraine’s forces are simply proxies for western interests; that argument, as Prof Lawrence Freedman says, would deny Ukrainians the agency they manifestly possess. Nor are the west’s aims other than defensive; they do not extend beyond helping to liberate Ukraine from its invaders.

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The commitment of battle tanks has shown that there is not a precise fit between the goals and tactics of Ukraine and its military allies. This has been true since the start of the war, when western nations were anxious (as they still are) to avoid a slide towards nuclear conflict, or opposed Kyiv’s calls for a no-fly zone over Ukraine. It has continued as the western allies have argued over the weaponry provided to Kyiv, and the scale of it, a process in which battle tanks provide another example.

There is no doubt now that western attitudes have hardened and Ukraine’s allies agree a pivotal moment in the war is being reached. The commitment of tanks confirms that the pivot is now towards a push for Ukrainian victory. But the uncertainty about numbers and logistics in the tank deployment is not simply down to the need for secrecy. It also reflects continuing political ambivalences.

In the future, the most important lack of fit is likely to come over ending the war, especially over Ukraine’s intention of recapturing Crimea from Russia. The key here will be the stance of Ukraine’s indispensable backer, the US administration. Today, Volodymyr Zelenskiy finally got some of what he asked for when he flew to Washington before Christmas, but in achieving this he has inescapably placed more of Ukraine’s future in the hands of Joe Biden.

  • Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist

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