THE mainstream press are giving the impression that the much-delayed German consent for Leopard 2 tanks to be sent to Ukraine, with some American M1 Abrams, British Challenger, Polish PT-91 (a very capable Polish 1995 upgrade of the ubiquitous Russian T-72) and possibly some French LeClerc and German Leopard 1 tanks means that the Russians are as good as defeated. While the tank-spotters debate the merits of the various types and others forecast the likely sequence of events, let’s check the realities.
Firstly there’s the matter of numbers. As Voltaire noted, God is on the side of the big battalions. From the various reports and retweets it seems likely that the Ukrainians will have about 40 Leopard 2s, 14 Challenger 2s and 60 PT-91s, a selection of personnel carriers and some 30 very useful M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. At some later date it will get American M1s. Of course, Ukraine also has several hundred of its own armoured vehicles and some captured Russian ones. So the Ukrainians probably will have enough tanks for several armoured brigades.
Unfortunately land warfare is not all about tanks (I write this as a former tank officer). Successful warfare is ‘all arms’, so the tanks need to work with equally mobile infantry, artillery, air defence, engineers and attack helicopters. The Ukrainians have some and are probably getting more – except attack helicopters. Remember too that all of these weapons are useless without motion potion and ammunition, and the Ukrainians are increasingly dependent on the West for the latter. Whether the West can manufacture it and deliver it to Ukrainian artillery positions at the rate that it is being used is an open question. This contrasts with the Russian Army which has a long history of using artillery in mass and the means to support it. It may not be pretty and it may cause collateral damage, but mass artillery works.
For the Ukrainians to drive the Russians out they must break through a defensive position in the Donbas. That position has been there since 2014 and is probably very comprehensively prepared with trenches, minefields, wire entanglements, pre-prepared strong-points, secondary and tertiary positions. Smashing though that little lot, defeating the inevitable counter attacks and then breaking out into the Russian rear needs firepower, lots and lots of it – and rather more than we have sent.
The Russians have occupied some 75,000 square kilometres of Ukraine. That’s three times the size of Kuwait, which Saddam Hussein invaded in 1990 with a second-rate (at best) army. It took the most sophisticated army ever assembled 100 hours to dislodge him, but that only started after an incredibly intense air bombardment that destroyed the Iraqi air force and reduced most of Iraqi army units to under 50 per cent strength.
The air is where it gets tricky for Ukraine: while it now has (some) powerful air defence protecting it, so do the Russians. What’s left of the Ukrainian Air Force must operate a very low level and it doesn’t have the air power to make a significant and sustained difference. Giving the Ukrainians F-16s, as some have suggested, isn’t possible unless one accepts the near-certainty that those F-16s would end up in combat with Russian aircraft in Russian airspace. There’s also the question of command and control (the AWACS systems). That’s another step down the road to the direct Nato/Russian confrontation that looks alarmingly like World War Three. If the United States is understandably reluctant to give Ukraine weaponry that can strike Russia, sending them long-range airpower is unlikely to be popular.
As the war drags into its second year it’s hard to see how either side can force a conclusion. That the Ukrainians are still in the fight is a testament to their willpower, but the Russians are still in the fight too and are at least as stubborn.