The counter-offensive east of Kharkiv allowed kyiv’s forces to recover thousands of square kilometres. But the success of their operation does not stop there. To these territorial gains are added precious war trophies. Leaving in haste, the Russian troops abandoned an entire arsenal: artillery pieces, ammunition, armored vehicles, technical vehicles, etc. Above all, to the great satisfaction of the Ukrainians, this loot includes a weapon that they desperately need: tanks. Thus, 100 to 200 would have been captured, according to Bloomberg, including T-80s and T-90s, the most recent Russian models. Enough to equip a whole brigade.
However, this happy harvest is far from meeting the needs of the Ukrainians in terms of heavy armaments. Determined to continue the reconquest of the territories occupied by Russia, they are increasingly pressing their NATO supporters to receive Western-made tanks, in particular the American Abrams and the German Leopard 2s. Not only, therefore, the Soviet models, which the former member countries of the Warsaw Pact, such as Poland, the Czech Republic or Slovakia, still retained.
Good news for the Ukrainians: the United States, long opposed to the idea of their Abrams directly confronting Kremlin tanks, is now considering such a scenario. “The tanks are well on the discussion table, confirmed a senior American official, quoted by the New York Times. Those that could be supplied very quickly, requiring little or no training, are Soviet type, but we are open to other options, if training, servicing and maintenance requirements are met.”
The green light from Washington would be all the more beneficial to the Ukrainians as its pool of Abrams tanks is considerable: around 3,700 M1A1 and M1A2 models, according to Military Balance, an annual assessment of the military capabilities of 169 countries in the world, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). “Above all, the Americans are already planning to provide training, in Poland, to honor Warsaw’s order, in 2021, of 250 new generation Abrams, to which will be added 116 older Abrams, whose modernization will be provided by Polish industries. , underlines Yann Boivin, former lieutenant-colonel in the French army and animator of the blog Blablachars. This sector could help train Ukrainian crews.”
On the side of kyiv, it is estimated that these new units would be a considerable asset on the battlefield against the Russian army. “Soviet tanks produced between the 1950s and 1980s would not match the Abrams and Leopards,” Mykhailo Podolyak, one of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s advisers, told Bloomberg.
Leopard 2s are the other heavy equipment targeted by the Ukrainians. As much as kyiv’s pressure on the Americans remains subdued, the pressure exerted on the Germans so that they provide their tank proves to be more aggressive. The head of Ukrainian diplomacy, Dmytro Kouleba, thus evoked “disappointing signals coming from Germany”, adding that “there is not a single rational argument which justifies that these weapons cannot be delivered”. He also called on Social Democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is more reluctant than his Green partners in government, to “tear down” the “weapons wall” still in place in Berlin. A reference to the refusals to supply lethal material to Ukraine before the Russian invasion.
Germany reluctant to send Leopard 2s
On the side of the Chancellery, we continue to bet on a circular delivery system, with the sending of modern German equipment to countries which deliver Soviet equipment to Ukraine – a way, by the way, to sell them Leopards or Marders (armored infantry with a turret). In Berlin, they are also waiting to see if the Americans will deliver Abrams to the Ukrainians. On this condition, Berlin could also supply Leopard 2s.
The German tank interests kyiv all the more as twelve other European countries already have them: Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey, for a total of more than 2000 vehicles – but with different versions and generations. Madrid has already said it is ready to train Ukrainian crews on forty Leopard 2s, among those it has.
The end of German reluctance would make it possible to set up a logistics chain bringing together several countries using its tank, to form one or more Ukrainian brigades and give them the means for maintenance. As for the Abrams, Poland would be an asset to set up such a sector, since it has nearly 250 Leopard 2s. Maffei”, says Yann Boivin. There is urgency: several months of training in such systems are needed. These could therefore only be used optimally at the end of winter. At the very moment when new offensives could be launched by the Ukrainian army.
Paradoxically, and this may explain Chancellor Scholz’s reluctance, the German army’s Leopard 2s (according to Military Balance: 225 Leopard 2A5/A6, 59 Leopard 2A7/2A7V and, in long-term stock, 55 old Leopard 2A4) are not not all fit for combat. A consequence of the underfunding of the Bundeswehr during the Angela Merkel era, when Vladimir Putin’s Russia was not considered a threat by Berlin. “How many are really available? asks Yohann Michel, researcher at the IISS. The federal forces, by giving kyiv Leopard 2s, may no longer be able to honor all their missions, such as that of solidarity with vis-a-vis its Baltic and Polish NATO partners, if they were targeted by a Russian offensive.”
This logic also applies to France, which has about 220 Leclerc tanks. “Their number is already insufficient, given the needs of the French army, which cannot afford to lose any, on pain of being under-equipped for a long time”, underlines Yohann Michel. Unlike German manufacturers, their French manufacturer, Nexter, in fact stopped manufacturing in 2008 and no longer has such production lines. Added to this is the fact that France has only sold them to one country, the United Arab Emirates (388 units, including 70 sold to Jordan in 2020) – the problem is the same on the side of the United Kingdom, almost the only holder of its Challenger 2 tank (227, according to Military Balance).
However, voices are being raised for the Elysée to decide to supply it to Ukraine. In a column published by The world, Pierre Haroche, of the Strategic Research Institute of the Military School (IRSEM) thus proposes that Paris deliver “about fifty Leclerc tanks, while taking charge of the training of the Ukrainian soldiers”. This “strong gesture” would make up for the fact that France is at the back of the pack in military aid to Ukraine: its support “is estimated at 233 million euros”, while “the United States is putting on the table 25 billion euros, the United Kingdom 4 billion, Poland 1.8 billion and Germany 1.2 billion”, indicates the researcher.
Therefore, major challenges would have to be met. There is already that of an adequate maintenance chain, to be set up behind the front, with specific tools for the maintenance of the Leclercs and their advanced systems. Then there is the training of Ukrainian crews. “The tanks are in contact, on the front line, recalls Yann Boivin. If you do not know how to use them correctly, the sanction is immediate. For Leclerc, it seems to me illusory to think that six months can be enough to train for its use.”
The reason lies in its specificities. “It is a third generation tank, which has firing capabilities on the move that the Abrams and Leopard 2, which are only second generation, do not have, specifies this French expert. The Leclerc makes it possible to seek confrontation with an enemy on the move, from its flanks or its rear. The Abrams and the Leopard can also do this, but not as well. The Leclerc was precisely designed to face Soviet tanks, with the idea that numerical inferiority will be offset by the technical and tactical superiority of this tank.” It remains to be seen whether the head of the French forces, Emmanuel Macron, the sole decision-maker, is ready to amputate his army of a flagship with critical stocks.