For the past several days the focus of war news has been squarely on Germany’s Olaf Scholz. The chancellor has been battling with his conscience over whether to accede to Volodymyr Zelensky’s plea to supply Ukraine with his country’s fearsome Leopard 2 tanks.
The Ukrainian president has been hammering the message that with much of the fighting in the east of the country bogged down in a bloody and attritional battle around the city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donbas region while Russia is reportedly conscripting and training up hundreds of thousands more troops for a spring offensive, his country is desperate for the sort of increased firepower these tanks can provide.
Zelensky has been putting similar pressure on Joe Biden too. Washington has been reluctant to supply Kyiv with its Abrams 1 tanks, which have led American battle assaults since they were first deployed in 1991, insisting they were too complicated and too hard to maintain and repair.
The great fear for both Berlin and Washington is that deploying these devastatingly effective weapons would give substance to the Kremlin’s repeated insistence that Russia’s real enemy in this conflict is Nato. Each escalation in the power and sophisticated weaponry being provided by Ukraine’s western allies to meet the changing circumstances of the war has been trumpeted as such by Vladimir Putin and his proxies.
But under pressure from the international community (particularly those states who have bought the Leopard tanks from Germany and want to be granted export licences to supply them to Ukraine, such as Poland), both the US and Germany have relented. They will begin sending their tanks to Ukraine in coming weeks. The question now is whether they will come soon enough and in sufficient quantities to allow Kyiv to launch a major spring offensive.
David Grummitt, a historian at the Open University, has written books on both the Leopard and the Abrams tanks. He believes that this is a significant and symbolic moment in the war – signifying as it does, the west’s willingness to do what it takes (from the sidelines of course – nobody is talking about Nato boots on the ground just yet) to defeat Russia in Ukraine and reinforce the idea that military aggression will not be allowed to prevail.
Both tanks were developed during the cold war to fight what Grummitt calls a “near-peer adversary” on a conventional battlefield. Kyiv is cock-a-hoop. Zelensky’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, told reporters that: “This is going to become a real punching fist of democracy against the autocracy from the bog.” Grummitt agrees, but warns that Putin will be quick to accuse Nato of escalating the aggression against his country.
So what changed Germany’s mind? As Christoph Bluth, an internional security expert at Bradford University explains, the resignation last week of German defence minister, Christine Lambrecht, was an indication that things might be shifting. Lambrecht had been a staunch opponent of exporting the tanks to Ukraine. The arrival of her replacement, Boris Pistorius, left Scholz surrounded by advisers who were in favour.
Poland had also indicated it would send some of its Leopards to Ukraine whether or not Germany supplied it with the necessary export licence. And a growing majority of Germans favoured upping Germany’s support to Ukraine.
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And what of Joe Biden’s about-turn on supplying Abrams tanks? Monica Duffy Toft, a professor of international politics and the director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School, Tufts University in the US, believes that, except for a few of the more conservative Republicans in the US Congress, there is generally bipartisan support for helping Ukraine. The US has already given more than US$50 billion in aid to Kyiv, something that polls suggest 65% of the US public think is the right thing to do.
More importantly, says Toft, this deal signals that the US is in this for the long haul. But, she warns, all the advanced military tech in the world will not resolve the conflict. Only talking will do that – and none of that is happening at the moment.
Zelensky puts his house in order
Western coverage of Ukraine and its leadership has been overwhelmingly positive since the invasion began at the end of February last year. Volodymyr Zelensky has cut a highly sympathetic figure, appearing equally at ease among his troops, on the streets of Ukrainian cities and via video link at just about every major international summit and not a few national parliaments to press his case for help in his country’s fight against the Russian aggressors.
But he also realises that he and his government must be seen to be squeaky clean and free from any whiff of malfeasance. So this week has has acted to purge his government of officials found to be involved in any alleged wrongdoing, whether it be the deputy head of his presidential office, Kyryl Tymoshenko, who was reported to be using a car donated by General Motors as humanitarian aid for his own use, or the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region, Valentyn Reznichenko, who was allegedly involved in a scandal surrounding the diversion of funds earmarked for road reconstruction to a company owned by his girlfriend.
Stefan Wolff, an expert in international security at the University of Birmingham, stresses how important it is for Zelensky and his senior team to be seen to be above any suspicion of wrongdoing. Wolff says it is vital to keep the Ukrainian people – who, after all, have endured unimaginable sacrifices over the past 11 months – from becoming disaffected. The purge won’t have gone unnoticed by Ukraine’s western backers either – who would be understandably averse to seeing their financial aid being “informally privatised” into the wrong hands.
Russia’s friends in Pretoria
The news that South Africa will join China and Russia this year in naval exercises, hosting their warships in its ports, was greeted with some surprise in the west. After all, back in the cold war, South Africa was a staunch ally of the US and at one point the idea was mooted of a southern alliance, to be dubbed Sato, which would include South Africa and take in much of Latin America and the south Atlantic region.
But, Stephen Chan, a scholar of African affairs at SOAS, reminds us of the close friendship between the Soviet Union and South Africa’s freedom fighters, the African National Congress. Moscow did plenty to help the ANC defeat apartheid, so it should not be surprising that there is a degree of sympathy in Pretoria for Russia.
As you’d expect, we’re working with scholars around the world to mark the anniversary of the invasion with a comprehensive look at everything that has happened since and what it might mean for the future of global security. One of the features of our coverage that anybody who has followed the war closely, is how the nature of the fighting has changed.
Alexander Hill, a professor of military history at Calgary University in Canada, walks us though how the conflict has developed from what Putin envisaged as a lightning-fast “special military operation” lasting a matter of days to an all-out land war with many thousands of casualties, wholesale destruction and millions of refugees. Barring meaningful talks, of which – at present – there is no sign, Hill, sadly, sees no end in sight to the misery and bloodshed.
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