OPINION - German move marks a real turning point in the war in Ukraine

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

It took less than a week for Germany to come off the fence to agree to send Leopard2 tanks to Ukraine, as urgently requested by Kyiv. Having asked for time to decide at the Nato pledging conference last week, Chancellor Scholz is set today to announce Berlin will send 14 tanks, and will waive export rules to allow allies to send German-built Leopards.

The decision to send the Leopards could mark a real turning point for the alliance and the war in general.

President Zelensky says his forces desperately need modern Nato main battle tanks to face the expected spring offensive by Russian ground forces. We may already be seeing the opening moves of this in the heavy fighting in Zaporizhzhia this weekend. Main Battle Tanks like the Leopards, and the 14 Challenger 2s offered by UK, have the weight, manoeuvrability and firepower to outgun the best the Russians have, such as the T90.

The Leopard 2 is suitable: by being lighter it can handle the terrain of eastern Ukraine. Allies such as Poland, Finland, Spain, the Dutch and Estonia could now send a dozen Leopards each.

The early British offer of 14 Challenger 2s and 30 AS90 self-propelled howitzers has been welcomed by Ukraine and the USA. “They feel that this offer got things going,” a senior UK officer told me. President Biden has been forecast to send a force of the powerful US Abrams M1 tanks.

A force of between 80 Nato MBTs would be formidable. It would allow Ukraine to field at least two sophisticated maneouvre divisions, made of six brigades – which Russia would be pushed to match.

The new armoured brigades, including sophisticated Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) like the Bradley and Stryker, plus replacement artillery and rocket systems like the HIMARS and MLRS are needed to stabilise the battlefronts. The aim is to ensure Ukraine’s forces succeed by checking the Russians this summer — no one on the battlefront expects them to be able to stage a major counter-offensive to expel the Russians from Ukraine this year.

The fear is that Putin could be about to deepen and expand the war – and this is why he has put the defence chief, Russia’s senior soldier Valery Gerasimov, in charge of operations. Russia’s available forces, including active reserves, are set to be expanded to one and a half million – though how they can be trained and equipped adequately is a mystery. In Mosco,w there have been suggestions that up to 500,000, including conscripts, are to be mobilised at the time of the spring draft.

So far the war has taken a huge toll on both sides — at least 200,000 killed and wounded, according to US estimates last November. The head of the Norwegian services, General Eirik Kristoffersen, thinks the toll is higher. “Russian losses are beginning to approach 180,000 dead or wounded soldiers,” he told Norway’s TV2 last week. Ukraine has lost 30,000 civilian dead and wounded alone.

The Ukraine crisis has confirmed Putin’s style of rule as a full-blown military dictatorship. No only is he calling for Russia to have 1.5 million under arms but has said industry must now be on a war footing to equip and arm for the war in Ukraine. This means that his rule succeeds or fails on the battlefront and in the house of war.

The threat of constant instability in Ukraine, and Moldova and Georgia besides, is a major problem for Nato and its principal members like Britain. Ukraine will need help to reform in its military, governance and economy. The forces have fought valiantly but they are still not a coherent coordinated organisation capable of fighting a complex all-arms battle. They are vulnerable on the ground and in the air. So far they have rendered Russia’s air force almost ineffective, but this cannot be maintained without a serious, improved offer of air assets by Nato.

Britain is about to refresh its defence and security strategy with an updated version of Boris Johnson’s Integrated Review of 2021 which is about to be rolled out. A lot has changed over the past two years, and it will be interesting to see how much of that change has been taken on board.

Once again it will boost the claims of a new ‘Global Britain’ with ‘a tilt to the Indo–Pacific.’ But it must emphasise the UK’s role as a key player in Northern Europe and the Atlantic. Despite some grumbles, that role is appreciated by our allies. It is where there is a war whose outcome could threaten the peace of us all.