Tanks Alone Won’t Turn the Tide of the War in Ukraine

WASHINGTON — For all the fanfare about the advanced battle tanks Ukraine secured from the West this week, they won’t be the silver bullet that allows Kyiv to win the war. Instead, the United States military will, once again, attempt to remake an army in its own image to give Ukraine the best chance to break through entrenched Russian defenses.

To do that the United States and its allies will not just have to provide the newly promised tanks, armored vehicles and advanced munitions, but also expand what has been something of an ad hoc training program to teach Ukraine’s military to use all the new equipment together. It will be a crash course in what the U.S. military calls combined arms warfare, something that takes months if not years for American units to master.

Decisions about new military aid are a delicate balancing act for the White House and the NATO alliance: While they want to provide Kyiv with new capabilities that have the potential to break through a battlefield stalemate, they also don’t want to provoke President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia into escalating the fight into a wider war.

As a result, providing the Western tanks produced considerable hand-wringing. But so far Moscow has been deterred from expanding the war, and creating newer and stronger Ukrainian units represents the best chance of avoiding a stalemate.

As satellite imagery revealed Russians building primary and secondary lines of defensive trenches along the front lines, American government analysts began the year forecasting a deadly stalemate as the likely outcome for 2023. Worried that a frozen conflict favors Russia, the United States and its allies began more earnest discussions in recent weeks about how to change the battlefield dynamics in Ukraine’s favor.

“We want to put them in the best possible position so that whether this war ends on the battlefield, whether it ends with the diplomacy or some combination, that they are sitting on a map that is far more advantageous for their long-term future and that Putin feels the strategic failure,” Victoria Nuland, a senior State Department official, told the Senate on Thursday.

Much of the first year of the conflict has involved Russia and Ukraine pounding each other’s positions with artillery, but there have been some tank operations. Ukraine’s biggest success, its counteroffensive outside Kharkiv, used tanks, but some of the most important weaponry were the quick-moving armored fighting vehicles. There, Ukraine also faced disorganized Russian forces.

The State of the War

  • Military Aid: Germany and the United States announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine, a decision that came after weeks of tense back-channel negotiations between Western officials. But it may be months before the tanks rumble across the battlefield.
  • Russian Strikes: A day after the announcement, Russia fired dozens of missiles at Ukrainian cities, piercing snow clouds and air defenses to kill at least 12 people across the country.
  • Corruption Scandal: After a number of allegations of government corruption, several top Ukrainian officials were fired, in the biggest upheaval in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government since Russia’s invasion began 11 months ago.

But in the next phase of the war, the Ukrainian military will target those dug-in trench lines of Russian units. Breaking through those lines is not just about driving a battalion of tanks over the trenches. It requires a coordinated attack with infantry troops marking targets, tanks firing at those positions and artillery guns providing cover and support. Such combined arms maneuvers are the backbone of U.S. military combat operations and the focus of the U.S. Army’s most intense training.

Though tanks have been the focus of attention, military analysts say a critical part of the recent donations by the West may be the 109 Bradley Fighting Vehicles the United States is sending and the large numbers of artillery guns that European allies will send. This equipment is likely to be combined with the German Leopards to help create new Ukrainian armored units. When the full package of Western equipment arrives, Kyiv could create as many as three additional brigades.

“The most important parts of the package are armored fighting vehicles, artillery, and precision-guided munitions,” said Michael Kofman, the Russia expert at CNA, a Washington analytic organization. “The small numbers of tanks promised are the least significant part of this.”

To ensure Ukraine’s army can conduct such maneuvers will involve an increase in American and European training. For months, the United States avoided sending Ukraine complex new systems that require new training. That attitude has shifted — first when the United States sent American artillery, then longer-range missile systems, and most recently, the Patriot battery system, all of which required training outside Ukraine.

The initial hesitancy was in part because of concerns about taking experienced Ukrainian solders off the battlefield as well as worries that having the United States train Ukrainian solders could be seen by the Kremlin as a provocation. But with training on Patriot missile defense systems underway in Oklahoma and instruction on intensive maneuver warfare instruction underway at America’s training ground in Germany, the original concerns have faded, U.S. military officials have acknowledged.

This isn’t the first time the United States has done this kind of training. The United States tried, and failed, to teach such techniques to the Iraqi army and, to a lesser degree, the Afghan military. But Ukraine has proved itself time and time again to be technically capable and resourceful — and its army has shown itself extremely motivated to learn how to employ new equipment.

Ukrainians have a core professional army group that has been fighting the Russians for years and years and years and received Western training until 2022,” said Stephen Biddle, a professor at Columbia University. “They are not starting from scratch.

Just how realistic it might be for the Pentagon to train the Ukrainians in the complexities of combined arms maneuver warfare in a short time span remains to be seen. Even in peacetime it takes a while for American units to master such operations, and that’s with the luxury of expansive training areas and deep institutional knowledge. Still, new warfare techniques can be learned under fire. After all, the American army first learned modern combined arms techniques in the midst of World War II.

“Militaries that are properly motivated and have the right kind of command structure adapt and learn pretty quickly,” Dr. Biddle said. “There is this view out there that militaries never change. And that’s nonsense. They can change really fast when they’re motivated and they’re organized correctly.”

Some analysts believe the single most effective weapon the United States could give Ukraine is precision-guided missiles. Ukraine’s army, by training and tradition, focuses on artillery. It is that expertise that allowed them to quickly and effectively use the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, to strike Russian ammunition depots and command posts.

Russia has adjusted, pulling back its logistics hubs outside the range of the HIMARS. A more advanced, longer-range missile, like the ATACMS, could hit those targets. But for now, weapons that could strike deep into Russia are off the table, seen as far too likely to provoke Mr. Putin. Though the United States has steadily opened up to providing Ukraine with more powerful weaponry over the course of the conflict, it has remained resolute on this one point.

American officials acknowledged that the true power of the 31 Abrams tanks the United States announced on Wednesday it would send Ukraine is that they will unlock more donations of German-made Leopard 2 tanks, as well as more artillery and infantry fighting vehicles.

The U.S. provision of the tanks will “spur the Germans and inspire the Poles” while demonstrating NATO unity, said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations. In addition to the 112 Leopards Germany will send, Poland has pledged 14 (along with hundreds of older tanks) and Canada will send four. Norway said it will send some of the tanks and Spain is considering a donation.

The new donations alone are unlikely to boost combat power enough to win the war for Ukraine, but officials and outside analysts say they will help substantially.

The tanks will punch through the trench lines and open a path for infantry in Bradley Fighting Vehicles to hold the reclaimed territory.

And the tanks send important signals to both Ukraine and Russia about continued American support. For Russia, the tanks demonstrate that the flow of arms from the West is growing, not waning. And for Ukraine it is a big morale boost, said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former American intelligence official now with the Center for a New American Security.

“It’s a vote of confidence that people are still invested in Ukraine retaking its territory rather than pushing Ukraine to negotiate,” she said.

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