FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

After weeks of intense diplomatic pressure from her allies, Germany finally decided to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. This is precisely the main battle tanks engineered for the sort of terrain the Ukrainian army is now defending.

The question  of sending state-of-the-art tanks to Ukraine nearly fractured the NATO alliance. Germany, from the start, has been very cautious about provoking Moscow. If they had their way, the Germans would have limited their assistance to non-lethal material. Berlin became the butt of jokes last year when it delivered helmets rather than guns to the Ukrainians.

The domestic political costs of sending tanks to Ukraine could be high for the social democratic government holding power in Berlin. Since the end of the Second World War, Germany (like Japan) has been maintaining a pacifist foreign policy.

Over the past so many years, Berlin has been under pressure from its NATO allies to increase its defense spending. Germany (like Japan) has been accused of building its domestic prosperity by sheltering under the nuclear umbrella of allies such as the US. Sending modern armaments abroad will expose the weakness of Germany’s military establishment, it is believed.

It was much easier for Britain to decide to send squadrons of its Challenger tanks to Ukraine. But these tanks are inferior to the Leopard 2. Poland, the Netherlands, Estonia and Canada were raring to send their Leopard tanks to the battlefield, although they needed Berlin’s consent to re-export the merchandise.

When Germany consented to sending its tanks, the move was diplomatically choreographed. The announcement was made on the same day the US declared it would send 31 Abrams tanks. It will likely take months to move these tanks to the front and even more months to train Ukrainian crews in its sophisticated software. Furthermore, the Abrams tanks operate on jet fuel rather than on diesel like the Leopard. One tank will have to be escorted to battle by a fleet of fuel trucks.

The delivery of a token amount to American tanks is widely seen as mere diplomatic cover for Germany to send hers. Kiev estimates it needs 300 battle tanks to recover the territory Russia occupied.

A ranking Ukrainian official likened the modern tanks to an iron fist, capable of punching holes in the Russian lines and isolating pockets of invading troops in highly mobile warfare. They will be most effective if combined with the last item on Kiev’s wish list: modern attack aircraft capable of supporting a highly mobile force from the air. The NATO countries are still balking at the prospect of sending fighter aircraft to Ukraine.

Some analysts believe the NATO decision to send battle tanks to Ukraine is a little late. It is widely presumed Russia will mount a large and brutal offensive at the start of spring to take back territory Kiev had recovered. But the decision to send tanks could force Moscow’s generals at advance their schedules and attack before their troops are fully prepared.

Even before spring breaks, it is expected Ukraine should have fully deployed the air defense systems recently delivered from the west. These air defenses, earlier this week, intercepted nearly all the missiles fired by the Russians.

Ukraine’s army benefitted from satellite intelligence shared by the NATO powers. This enabled them to precisely target Russia command-and-control facilities close to the frontlines.

To be sure, the escalation of NATO military support signals that the war will surely progress well into its second year. With new weaponry, Ukraine will be able to blunt any Russian offensive – unless Putin escalates into the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

This has certainly been a capital-intensive war. The burn-rate is such that it is believed Russia is quickly running short of munitions. There are reports of Moscow badgering her allies in Pyongyang for ammunition. Earlier this month, Putin showed impatience with his defense suppliers over their pace of deliveries. Moscow’s missile barrages, using Soviet-era stocks, have been less frequent and less intense.

The supply of slow-moving Iranian-supplied drones appears to have run out. They have proven less than desirable, with most easily shot down by Ukrainian air defenses. It does not seem likely the Russians will want to purchase more of them. This is a war of advanced weaponry. Digital technologies determine battlefield superiority.

If the fighting in Ukraine continues at this intensity, this war of attrition becomes a battle of manufacturing capacity. On this aspect, the western powers enjoy clear superiority. Much of the Russian weaponry deployed so far appear to have been overrated. Their battle tanks are lumbering and vulnerable to portable anti-tank weapons. Their missiles have poor targeting capabilities. A lot of missiles fired turned out to be duds.

This war has also put into question the combat readiness of the Russian army. Its logistics systems are primeval. Its troops poorly trained. Its military doctrines are obsolete. Moscow’s generals have more medals on their uniforms than they deserve.

The Wagner group, Putin’s mercenary army, has proven superior to their counterparts in the Russian army. But this is because they compensate for their technical inferiority with sheer brutality. Wagner units found retreating are shot on the spot.

With the flow of military material being sent to Ukraine, western defense suppliers (such as the producer of Leopard tanks and Patriot missiles) are eagerly awaiting larger orders. All the military spending could help the industrial economies avert a deep recession.

This is an unseemly upside.


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