As the Ukrainian winter largely freezes positions on both sides of the grinding war there, temperatures in NATO have been rising over the idea that Germany is obstructing critical supply of battle tanks to Kyiv. Ian Davis poses four larger questions around this tank fixation and how it might best support negotiations to end the war.

After several weeks of pressure from allied capitals, Germany has confirmed that it will now supply 14 Leopard 2A6 tanks to Ukraine, and give partner countries permission to re-export further battle tanks to Kyiv. However, the nationalistic criticism over Berlin’s initial hesitancy to supply the tanks unhelpfully masks comment on four bigger questions that must be addressed.

How many tanks is enough?

The first is: ‘How many tanks might it take to break the battlefield stalemate?’ One expert suggests that around 100 tanks would be required to have a “significant effect on the fighting”. Ukraine’s most senior military commander, General Valery Zaluzhny, has said he needs about 300 tanks and about 600 armoured fighting vehicles to make a difference.

I would argue that it is questionable whether even the supply of 1,000 Leopard tanks (or nearly 50% of the Leopard inventories of European and NATO countries) would be enough to enable Ukraine to produce a decisive outcome in the war. There are three main reasons for this: anti-tank weapons are more decisive than tanks on the battlefield; despite heavy losses, Russia still has plenty of tanks in reserve; offense is more difficult that defence.

Before the war, Russia was estimated to have 2,800 tanks and 13,000 other armoured vehicles (reconnaissance and infantry fighting vehicles) in active military units with another 10,000 tanks and 8,500 armoured vehicles in storage. Ukraine claims that it has destroyed over 3,100 Russian tanks and over 6,200 armoured combat vehicles, although open sources suggest that fully verified Russian losses are about half of these numbers. While the exact numbers are unclear, one thing is certain: despite heavy losses, Russia is not going to run out of tanks and armoured vehicles anytime soon. Russia has the military stockpiles to continue the fight over several years.

Are tanks effective?

The second is ‘Are tanks as militarily effective as some believe?’ When Ukraine was in a mainly defensive posture, the thousands of anti-tank weapons provided by the West, such as Javelins and NLAWs, and those fired or guided by Turkish-supplied drones, allowed its forces to defeat Russian mechanized forces despite their much greater firepower. Similarly, during the 44-day Azerbaijan-Armenia war in 2020 over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Azerbaijan’s use of armed drones and other sophisticated military hardware enabled it to overcome Armenia’s substantial mechanised forces: approximately 240 Armenian tanks were reportedly destroyed, while Azerbaijan lost only 36.

However, now that Ukraine is on the offensive, it seems likely that the advantage will transfer to the Russian forces, which are mainly now in defensive postures (despite continuing rumours of a Spring offensive). The Russians have thousands of anti-tank missiles (such as the Kornet, which has proved effective against the most modern US- and Israeli-built tanks elsewhere) as well as armed drones. Will Western supplied tank systems fare any better against Russian anti-tank units, or will the Challengers and Leopards join their Russian counterparts in the Ukrainian tank cemetery?

Are tanks escalatory?

The third is ‘Even if the Western tanks were to enable Ukrainian forces to ‘punch through’ Russian lines, might this lead to a further escalation of the war?’ NATO could be drawn into direct conflict with Russia, or through third parties increasing their military supplies to Moscow. North Korea and Iran are already supplying Russia with armed drones and ammunition, but China has so far limited its support to economic and political assistance. This might change if Western arms supplies look like producing a tipping point in the war.

Escalation could also occur even if the tanks have little impact on changing the contours of the battlefield. The actual delivery of the tanks could still lead to an escalation due to their psychological effects on Russia’s leadership. There is so much irrational behaviour on both sides that a further escalation by Russia cannot be discounted, even if Moscow recognises their limited effect on the military balance of the war. After all, irrational threat perceptions and other dubious motives in Moscow are what got us to this point in the first place.

Could tanks promote negotiations?

The fourth is ‘Would these tanks help change the dynamic on the battlefield and force peace on the Russians on terms that would be more favourable to Ukraine?’. This is a difficult question to answer and is largely determined by the outcomes from the other three questions above. Clearly, Ukraine believes it could use the tanks to inflict further serious defeats on Russia and force it to negotiate some form of ceasefire and/or withdrawal. However, for the reasons already given, battlefield success is not a given. Indeed, a failed Ukrainian offensive could leave it more vulnerable to a Russian counter-offensive and change the dynamic negatively.

Other factors that will shape the battlefield in the next few months include: the husbanding of ammunition and the capacity of the West to increase defence production; the ability of Ukraine and Russia to mobilise, train and deploy its troops; the willingness of the West to provide more sophisticated air offensive capabilities to Ukraine (in addition to the tanks); the willingness of China to remain ‘neutral’ in this war; and the strategic leadership of presidents Zelensky, Putin and Biden — and their ability to sustain the will of their people.

On balance, it seems unlikely that the proposed tank supplies will break the deadlock. Instead, what is needed is for Western states to do everything possible to avoid a protracted war in Ukraine. This requires a redoubling of diplomatic efforts. Of course, the tanks have now become such an emotional issue that not delivering them might have major psychological effects both on the morale of the Ukrainians and on European cohesion. Also given the risk of another Russian offensive later in the year, perhaps the tanks can be part of a renewed effort to agree a permanent ceasefire.

One option would be for the proposed tank transfers to be authorised in principle, but their physical delivery delayed (say, for 60 days) to allow for urgent ceasefire negotiations. First, the US-led Ukraine Contact Group could reach agreement on a pool of battle tanks that would begin to be supplied to Ukraine from a given date, such as the anniversary of the Russian invasion on 24 February 2023. This would include US, German and British tanks numbering at least 300 in total, but with the clear understanding that there would be further supplies beyond that number. This intent to supply would be communicated to President Putin through existing intermediaries, such as Presidents Macron and Erdogan. However, to prevent the actual supply, Russia would have to agree to an immediate ceasefire and the start of formal negotiations. Pressure would also need to be applied to President Zelensky to agree to the same terms.   

Both President Zelensky and President Putin have expressed a willingness to negotiate an end to the war, but their positions remain far apart. Zelensky, for example, has previously suggested convening a special global peace summit that would focus on the implementation of Kyiv’s 10-point peace plan, which includes the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops, the release of all prisoners, a tribunal for those responsible for the aggression and security guarantees for Ukraine. However, Russia shows no signs of being ready to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and pre-war borders.

Nonetheless, negotiations must start somewhere. And there is no shortage of options of what a possible settlement for Ukraine might look like. What is lacking is the political will to get started. The utility of the tanks as bargaining chips in a newly minted peace process may well outweigh their use on the battlefield.

Dr Ian Davis is the founder of NATO Watch, a website platform to promote a more transparent and accountable NATO. He is also the Executive Editor of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Yearbook and an Associate Senior Fellow within Conflict and Peace at SIPRI. Prior to joining SIPRI, he held several senior positions, including Executive Director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), 2001-2007.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Ministry of Defence of Ukraine via Flickr.