Western tanks give Ukraine a fighting chance

After weeks of diplomatic hand-wringing, the U.S. and Germany have decided to send battle tanks to Ukraine, a critical step toward helping the country take back territory seized by Russian forces during last year’s invasion. While President Joe Biden and Europe’s leaders deserve credit for maintaining solidarity with Ukraine, they should remain mindful of the risks of deeper Western involvement in the war.

Under the arrangement announced Wednesday, the U.S. will send Ukraine 31 M1 Abrams tanks, at a cost of $400 million. Meanwhile, Germany will supply 14 Leopard 2 tanks from its stockpile and will allow other allies, including Poland, Spain and Finland, to ship their own German-made Leopards to the front lines. In all, the package approved by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz aims to deliver more than 100 tanks to Ukraine’s forces, along with ammunition, training and maintenance support.


Most immediately, the initiative will help resolve tensions between Berlin and other NATO members, which had pushed Scholz to move faster to approve the delivery of heavy tanks. The Germans said they would send the Leopards only if the U.S. provided its own tanks. The Pentagon rejected such linkage, maintaining that the 70-ton Abrams tanks are more difficult to operate, maintain and transport than the Leopards, which are already in plentiful supply in Europe. While the reluctance of U.S. defense officials to placate Germany’s position was understandable, Biden was right to overrule them and avoid a more damaging rift within the alliance, which would only hurt Ukraine’s cause and serve Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interests.

The delivery of heavy armor to Ukraine comes at a pivotal time. After suffering heavy losses last fall, Russia has made modest gains in the south and east. Intelligence officials think that Putin is planning a spring offensive, waged by a reconstituted force of recent conscripts, former prisoners and private mercenaries. With Ukraine’s casualties mounting and its supplies of weapons and munitions running low, the influx of powerful Western tanks will be essential to holding ground and defending against the expected onslaught.

To take back its lost territory, Ukraine may require even more armor and sophisticated weaponry — including not just additional tanks but combat jets and long-range missiles that could strike Russian supply lines, bases and command posts.

Before moving forward with any such assistance, however, NATO should insist on firmer assurances that Ukraine will avoid attacks inside Russia itself, which would risk potential retaliation against the West.

The Biden administration should work with Congress to monitor the flow of military and economic assistance to Ukraine, limit waste and corruption, and prevent weapons from falling into the wrong hands.

It should also reinvigorate efforts to engage with Russian officials to limit the risks of escalation and lay the foundation for negotiations to end the war.

For the moment, peace remains a distant prospect. The months ahead will be long and bloody. Supplying Western battle tanks at least gives Ukraine a fighting chance.

— Bloomberg Opinion

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