Ukraine Situation Report: Germany And U.S. Play Chicken Over Tanks For Kyiv

Germany won’t allow its Leopard 2 tanks to go to Ukraine unless the U.S. sends Abrams tanks first, which isn’t happening any time soon.

byHoward Altman| PUBLISHED Jan 18, 2023 9:03 PM
Ukraine Situation Report: Germany And U.S. Play Chicken Over Tanks For Kyiv
Krauss-Maffei Wegmann photo
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During World War II, the U.S. and Germany fought great tank battles. Now allies, the two nations are having a tank duel of a different kind. Germany says it won’t allow nations to send German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine unless the U.S. first sends M-1 Abrams main battle tanks, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday. And the Pentagon on Wednesday repeated the long-standing U.S. opposition to sending those tanks.

The armor arm-wrestle comes as Ukraine is bogged down in fierce fighting in the Donbas and ahead of Friday’s meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, where some 50 nations will gather again to discuss how to continue to arm Ukraine in its fight against the full-on Russian invasion.

There are more than than 2,300 variants of the Leopard 2 tanks in NATO and European nation stocks, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and allies like Poland have said they would provide some to Ukraine. But transferring them to Ukraine takes the approval of Berlin, which isn't forthcoming. Nor will Germany send them directly.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Wednesday that Germany was “strategically interlocked” with allies on how to support Ukraine, including with tanks, according to The Wall Street Journal. By deferring to Washington, Scholz, the newspaper noted, is now adding pressure on President Joe Biden to authorize the export of Abrams tanks to Kyiv.

But despite that pressure, the U.S. is not ready to do that, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

“I just don't think we're there yet,” Kahl said about providing Abrams tanks, and contractors to service them, to Ukraine.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “has been very focused on…not...providing the Ukrainians a system they can't repair, they can't sustain and they, over the long term can't afford, because it's not helpful,” said Kahl. 

“And this isn't about a new cycle or what's symbolically valuable,” Kahl said in reaction to statements by Germany that they are waiting for the U.S. to go first when it comes to providing Ukraine tanks. “It's what will actually help.”

Kahl noted that Germany would not be alone. Allies have already agreed to provide Ukraine with a mix of armor, including 12 Challenger 2 main battle tanks and FV432 Mk 3 Bulldog tracked armored personnel carriers from the U.K., 50 M2A2-ODS Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the U.S., Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicles from Germany and AMX-10 RC "light tanks" from France.

There was also renewed talk on Wednesday about the U.S. providing Ukraine with Stryker armored vehicles in the next arms package to Ukraine, to be announced Friday, Politico reported.

But the decision to send Abrams tanks is complicated, said Kahl, by what’s in stock, the capability to train troops on how to use and maintain them, and the long-term expense of providing them.

“The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment,” said Kahl. “It's expensive. It's hard to train on. It has a jet engine, I think it's about three gallons to the mile of jet fuel. It is not the easiest system to maintain. It may or may not be the right system. But we'll continue to look at what makes sense.”

Speaking via video to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said what makes sense is more Western tanks to Ukraine.

“Mobilization of the world must outpace the mobilization of our joint enemy,” he said. The supplying of Ukraine with air defenses must outpace Russia’s next air attacks. The supply of Western tanks must outpace another invasion of Russian tanks.”

Ukraine is also taking a more humorous approach to its ongoing requests for more tanks.

Before The War Zone readers dive into the rest of the most recent updates on the ongoing conflict below, they can first get up to speed on recent developments through our previous rolling coverage here.

The Latest

"Vicious is the fighting in the Donbas today, particularly around Bakhmut and Soledar and of the two even more towards Soledar in particular, as the Russians continue to try to make more progress in securing both towns,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters, including from The War Zone, Wednesday afternoon. “I will tell you that as of this morning, we do not assess that they actually possess both of them unilaterally. We still assess that [this] is contested ground, but they have made incremental progress in the last few days. There's no doubt about it, and they've done it at a great cost. They continue to throw body after body into this effort to secure these two towns."

It is an effort, said Kirby, "largely driven by [Yevgeny] Prigozhin and the Wagner group," that he leads.

"There is some support from Russian military forces, but it still seems to be a singular fixation for Mr. Prigozhin," said Kirby. "We think that there are very recent economic incentives for him trying to do this. There are gypsum mines in Bakhmut and salt mines in Soledar."

Soledar also gives them a "geographic advantage in holding Bakhmut if they can actually secure Bakhmut because of where it sits geographically. But the fighting is intense there even today, as it has been for now several weeks."

The U.K. Ministry of Defense (MoD) shared similar concerns about Bakhmut.

Elsewhere on the battlefield, fighting continues in other parts of the Donetsk Oblast, as well as in the Luhansk Oblast. Here are some key takeaways from the latest Institute for the Study of War assessment:

  • Russian forces continued to conduct limited counterattacks near Kreminna as Ukrainian officials continued to suggest that Russian forces may be preparing for a decisive effort in Luhansk Oblast.
  • Russian forces continued offensive actions across the Donetsk Oblast front line.
  • The Russian information space is struggling to portray tactical Russian gains around Soledar as operationally significant.
  • Russian forces in Kherson Oblast continue to struggle to maintain their logistics efforts in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast due to Ukrainian strikes.

While he was in Ukraine, Kahl, the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, talked about Ukraine's need for long-range fires. Talking to reporters in the Pentagon Wednesday, Kahl said the U.S. is still not ready to provide Ukraine with Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) short-range ballistic missiles, which have a range of 200 miles, about four time that of the Guided Multiple Launch Missile System (GMLRS) munitions fired by the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, provided by the U.S. and M270. They also hit with a far larger and harder punch.

"Nothing has been off the table," said Kahl. "I think that our judgment to date has been that the juice isn't really worth the squeeze on the ATACMS. You never know. That judgment at some point could change but we're not there yet...I think we're kind of at the agree-to-disagree position on that" with Ukraine.

Though Russian troops and equipment are in Belarus as part of a joint military training exercise, Ukrainian military leaders say they don’t need to add additional forces to their northern border at the moment.

The number of Ukrainian troops in the north compared to the number of Russian troops in Belarus “is sufficient,” said Lt. Gen. Sergiy Naêv, commander of the United Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

“In case the threat is increased, we have the appropriate military units in reserve,” he said, according to to the Facebook page of the Ukrainian Joint Forces Command. “The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine provides for the immediate redeployment of them to threatening destinations.”

Lt. Gen. Sergiy Naêv, commander of the United Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, says Ukraine has enough troops at the border with Belarus at the moment. (Ukraine Joint Forces Command Facebook screencap)

Russia and its client state Belarus began this latest round of joint exercises on Jan. 16. Among other things, the two nations are conducting joint tactical flight exercises, Col. Andrei Lukyanovic, commander of the Belarusian Air Forces and Air Defense Forces said on the Belarusian Defense Ministry’s Telegram channel Wednesday.

“The teaching takes place in two stages,” he said. “All airfields and ranges of the Air Force and Air Defense Forces of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus are involved in its implementation. The main goal of the exercise is to increase the operational compatibility of the aviation units of Belarus and the Russian Federation, which jointly perform combat training tasks.”

The two air forces are performing a wide range of tasks, said Lukyanovic, “starting with aerial reconnaissance, joint patrolling of the State Border of the Republic of Belarus in the airspace and aviation control from an A-50” airborne early warning and control aircraft, which “allows you to increase the radar field almost to the entire depth of the Republic of Belarus.”

The two nations are also working on landing tactical assault forces, transporting cargo, air support, fighter cover and evacuating the wounded, Lukyanovic said.

“Modern aviation technology makes serious demands, both on the flight and engineering staff. Joint exercises allow us to exchange experience and raise the level of combat training. And all this affects the strengthening of the security of the Union State.”

Col. Andrei Lukyanovic, commander of the Belarusian Air Forces and Air Defense Forces. (Belarus Defense Ministry photo)

While Belarus has provided "tangible, demonstrable, geographic support to Russia as Russia has continued to strike inside Ukraine from Belarusian territory," the White House does not fully know the intentions of these exercises, Kirby said.

"It is difficult to know...whether it is just an opportunity to flex their muscles or is in some ways, used as specific training to a specific operation that Russia is planning inside Ukraine," Kirby said. "I will tell you that we still have seen no indication that Belarus intends, plans or is organizing for physical entry into Ukraine to assist the Russian troops inside Ukraine."

During a visit to Kyiv, Canadian Defense Minister Anita Anand announced that Ottawa will donate 200 Senator Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) to Ukraine.

"This new package of military assistance responds to a specific Ukrainian request for these vehicles, which are being purchased from Roshel, a Canadian company based in Mississauga, Ontario," according to the Canadian Defense Ministry (MoD). "This aid is valued at over $90 million and is allocated as part of the additional $500 million in military aid for Ukraine announced by Prime Minister Trudeau in November 2022."

On Thursday, the Swedish government will instruct its Armed Forces to send the Swedish Archer artillery system to Ukraine, the Swedish Expressen news agency reported Wednesday, citing documents on the government's website.

"At the same time, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and Defense Minister Pål Jonson have called a press conference about 'increased support' to Ukraine, Expressen reported.

Transporting arms and ammunition to Ukraine takes a lot of planning and hard work, as you can see in this video by U.S. Transportation Command, which is responsible for getting the stuff from Point A to Point B.

But not all of the arms and other supplies Ukraine has received have been transferred in the open.

Bulgaria secretly helped Ukraine survive Russia’s early onslaught by secretly supplying it with large amounts of desperately needed diesel and ammunition, the politicians responsible told The Guardian.

The former Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov and Finance Minister Assen Vassilev said their country provided 30 percent of the Soviet-calibre ammunition Ukraine’s army needed during a crucial three-month period last spring, and at times 40 percent of the diesel.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić dismissed Russian President Vladimir Putin's territorial claims in Ukraine, distancing himself from one of Moscow's closest allies.

Russian electronic warfare measures have been a bane to the existence of Ukrainian drones, like this large drone seen in the video below.

Russian drones, meanwhile, continue to play havoc with Ukrainian forces, though in the case of these videos below, it is unclear how much damage the Lancet drone actually caused.

A Lancet also apparently took out a Ukrainian 1B44-1 (RPMK-1) weather radar, used to collect data for artillery, missiles and military aviation.

Drones aren't the only problem for Ukrainian troops, as you can see in this video of a Ukrainian T-72A tank that had its hull pierced by an anti-tank weapon.

Russian forces managed to destroy a U.S. donated Oskkosh FMTV M1083A1P2 cargo truck.

Russian weapons took their share of hits as well, as you can see in this video of an artillery strike on a 2S3 Akatsiya howitzer in Donetsk.

And these seven destroyed or damaged Russian BMP-1 Infantry Fighting Vehicles, also struck in Donetsk Oblast.

Folks traveling the roads in Ukraine by now are used to seeing a wide assortment of military vehicles. But one thing even Ukrainians don't see very often is a Tu-141 Strizh jet-powered drone transporter-launcher. Originally built as a reconnaissance UAV, Tu-141 drones are believed to have been used to strike air bases deep inside Russia. You can read more about that here.

And finally, Ukrainians are nothing if not resourceful, especially when it comes to raising money to buy weapons.

For $10,000, you can order an inscription on AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM). The funds go to @BackAndAlive, which raises money for the Ukrainian Army.

That's it for now. We will update this story if there is anything major to add.

Contact the author: howard@thewarzone.com

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