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Tom Clonan How Leopard 2 tanks could give Ukrainian forces a 'dramatic advantage'

This is another decisive moment in the war in Ukraine.

GERMANY’S DECISION TO send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine is another political and strategic turning point in the conflict. The decision coincides with 11 months of combat in Ukraine – in what Putin had vainly hoped would be a ‘three-day war’. Germany has also given the necessary export licence clearance to permit other countries to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

This development gives the green light for neighbouring EU and NATO member states to send large numbers of their stocks of state of the art Leopard tanks to Kyiv within weeks. In theory, Ukraine could receive as many as 150 of these tanks before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion on February 24th.

In political terms, the Kremlin has responded swiftly. It has threatened an ‘unambiguously negative’ response to this support. They have also stated that the development will permanently ‘mark’ relations between Berlin and Moscow. There is a clear threat of escalation on the part of Putin and his generals.

In the absence of a credible ground force capable of a winter/spring offensive – it is unclear what Russia’s response might consist of. In the absence of a viable conventional response, there is a risk of the renewed threat by Putin of the use of a non-conventional ‘tactical’ nuclear strike on Zelensky’s forces in any major Ukrainian offensive.

In strategic terms, the deployment of the Leopard 2 tank will afford Ukrainian forces a dramatic advantage in ground operations in eastern Ukraine. The Leopard 2 tank is in common use throughout Europe with an ample supply of ammunition, spare parts and the electronic systems that guide its weapon systems. The tank is extremely well armed with a 120mm Rheinmetall cannon – capable of firing many ammunition types including High Explosive Anti Tank (HEAT) projectiles along with High Explosive Anti Personnel (HEAP) munitions. The Leopard main battle tank is better armed – and better armoured – than any of its Russian counterparts.

One of the greatest strengths of the Leopard is its speed and endurance. Fully armed and supported by infantry mounted in armoured fighting vehicles, the Leopard can travel at a speed of up to 70 KPH and has a combat range of approximately 200 kilometres. If sufficient numbers arrive in Ukraine, Putin’s depleted armoured units would find themselves completely outmaneuvered and out-gunned by Ukrainian forces.

The numbers of Leopard tanks – and the speed of their deployment to Ukraine – will be critical. The 14 German tanks would be sufficient to equip an armoured squadron, which in turn would provide support for a mechanised battalion – a force of approximately 600 infantry troops with artillery support. Larger numbers, with up to 150 Leopard tanks deployed to the field would provide enough firepower for a full armoured division. That would be enough to achieve a breakthrough for Ukraine in any spring offensive envisaged by Kyiv.

Ukrainian forces continue to probe Putin’s defences in Zaporizhzhia Oblast. This week there has been intense Russian counteroffensives in the areas of Orikhiv and Huliaipole – south of the regional capital of Zaporizhzhia. The Russian actions in these areas has been confined to artillery barrages designed to harass Ukrainian forward units and an attempt to deny them ground. This is significant as it hints at a possible axis of advance on the part of Ukrainian forces via Melitipol toward the port city of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov. If Ukraine – with the assistance of a fully armoured division of western tanks – were to succeed in such an offensive, they would sever Putin’s land corridor from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula.

After the recent liberation of Kherson by Zelensky’s forces, Putin’s generals will be monitoring these developments with grave concern. The United States has escalated this challenge to Putin with President Biden’s decision to send US M1 Abrams main battle tanks to Ukraine. The US has forward deployed Abrams tanks in Europe and elsewhere in the region.

This is another decisive moment in the war in Ukraine. Since September’s lightning advances east and south of Kharkiv – along with the liberation of Kherson in the south in November – Ukraine has gained the initiative in the conflict. Currently, there is bitter fighting in and around Bakhmut with the reported loss of Soledar to Putin’s Wagner mercenaries – supported by recently mobilised and poorly equipped reserve troops. On this front, Ukrainian forces are reported to be concentrating in Paraskovivka to prevent any futher Russian gains.

This is heavy attritional combat. It is believed that both sides are enduring daily losses of between 50 and 100 troops killed and seriously injured in combat. In the long term, such losses are unsustainable and both sides will be desperately seeking to achieve some sort of tactical breakthrough to effect a battlefield reversal. Russia – in the absence of effective ground fighting units – has concentrated on massed missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure in order to erode their willingness and capacity to fight. This campaign has largely failed and Putin has sidelined his much-vaunted military commander, Sergei Surovikin ‘General Armageddon’ and handed direct control of his ‘Special Military Operation’ in UKraine to the Chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov.

This is a significant development and signals Putin’s exasperation at the lack of a decisive victory in Ukraine. It also signals his possible intentions as we approach the one-year anniversary of his ill-judged and disastrous invasion. As author and architect of the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, Putin’s highest ranking general appears to represent a last roll of the strategic dice in Ukraine. In short, the Kremlin have effectively failed in almost all of their strategic objectives in Ukraine. Gerasimov, as newly appointed commander of the Special Military Operation is a well-known proponent of hybrid and non-conventional forms of warfare – including the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

If Zelensky can mount a successful winter/spring offensive on or around the anniversary of Putin’s invasion – he will have achieved an unambiguous victory in the war in Ukraine. The supply of Leopard 2 tanks – along with US M1 Abrams tanks – may well prove crucial to this victory. Time will be of the essence for Ukraine with significant training, deployment and logistics challenges in the field. Ukraine has the troops – almost 1 million men of military service age with military experience since Russia’s hybrid intervention in Donbas in 2014. Ukraine also has the motivation to fight, as they are fighting for their collective survival as an independent sovereign state.

At this point, Putin is also fighting for his political and personal survival. It is not clear if there is sufficient motivation among young Russians to fight and die for Putin’s survival. There is little evidence of the Russian military’s ability to meaningfully change the facts on the ground in Ukraine. All things considered, current developments represent a window of opportunity for Zelensky to inflict a humiliating defeat on Putin. It also represents a window of risk in which Putin – desperate to save face – takes the decision to escalate the conflict by use of a non-conventional weapon or by some other drastic means.

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