Ukraine Situation Report: Tank Deals Should Be Approved Says Germany’s Vice Chancellor
The second most senior official in Berlin says other countries should be allowed to send German-made tanks to Ukraine if they want.
Germany's Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck has publicly come out in favor of approving requests from other countries, such as Poland, to send German-made Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine. The terms of the original sales of those tanks give officials in Berlin the authority to block foreign transfers, but they have been under very active political pressure from allies in recent weeks to allow them to proceed.
Habeck's comments come a day after Polish President Andrzej Duda publicly declared his government's intention to transfer Leopard 2s to Ukraine. Duda's remarks came during a visit to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv where he met with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, and other officials. The Polish President said that he wanted this to be part of a broader international coalition effort to give more modern Western tanks to the Ukrainian armed forces.
"Germany should not stand in the way when other countries make decisions to support Ukraine, regardless of what decision Germany makes," Habeck said today.
While this indicates that Germany won't stand in the way of transfers of Leopard 2 tanks, it still does not appear interested in sending any tanks directly in its possession to the Ukrainian military. In the past, German officials have expressed concerns that tanks, other heavy armored vehicles, and other more complex weapon systems could provoke significant retaliation from the Russian government, both inside Ukraine and elsewhere. However, Berlin's position has already softened in the past month or so, with the approval of direct transfers of Marder 1 infantry fighting vehicles and Patriot surface-to-air missile systems to Ukraine.
German officials also say that the Polish government has not even made a formal request to re-export any of its Leopard 2s to Ukraine. It remains unclear whether Poland is prepared to move ahead in sending those tanks to Ukraine unilaterally, or even in a coalition that does not include Germany directly.
There have been reports that Denmark, a NATO member like Poland and Germany, and Finland, which is working to join the alliance, have also expressed interest in sending Leopard 2s to Ukraine. The United Kingdom, another member of NATO, has also said it is looking into sending some of its Challenger 2 main battle tanks.
"We're absolutely supportive of any type of defense capabilities that our international allies and partners can provide to Ukraine, to include tanks," Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder said at a press conference today. "Again, part of the equation that goes into that is the ability to train on this equipment, sustain it, and maintain it, and so that will be a part of any discussion whether it's the United States or our partners. But certainly, we are supportive of any type of capability that will give the Ukrainians an advantage on the battlefield."
Ryder declined to say whether or not the U.S. military was actively considering transferring any U.S.-made M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine as part of any broader coalition plan. The last American aid package for Ukraine did include heavier armor vehicles in the form of M2A2-ODS Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. As already noted, the Germans have approved a transfer of Marder 1s and the French government also announced recently that it would be sending AMX-10RC heavy armored cars, all of which you can read more about in this past War Zone piece.
By focusing on one type, efforts to transfer significant numbers of the tanks, train troops to employ them and mechanics to support them, as well as provide a steady stream of spares, could be highly beneficial, although Ukraine would likely take anything they can get.
Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly asked for more tanks, especially newer Western types, for months now.
Regardless, it seems like some sort of western tank deal could finally be on the horizon for Ukraine. Now, let's get caught up with other developments in the now nearly 11-month-long conflict.
WARNING: Some of the updates below contain graphic material.
Before The War Zone readers dive into the rest of the most recent updates on the ongoing conflict below, they can also first get up to speed on previous recent developments through our previous rolling coverage here.
The grueling Russian offensive in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region, which the Russian government declared it had annexed as its own national territory last September, grinds on. There are unconfirmed reports that Russian forces may have secured the city of Soledar, or are close to securing it. Ukrainian officials have, so far, denied that Soledar is lost.
"We do continue to see intense and heavy fighting around Soledar and Bakhmut, which, of course, is relatively close. We cannot corroborate any reports that Soledar has been taken by Russian forces... in particular, those forces led by the Wagner group," Pentagon Press Secretary Ryder said today. "But we do know that the Ukrainians continued to operate in the vicinity of Soledar and continue to fight back."
Soledar is a suburb of the nearby city of Bakhmut, the capture of which has been a major objective for Russia's military. The fighting in the area, which has been dominated heavily by artillery, has produced significant casualties on both sides. It has also left the immediate region devastated physically, as can be seen below in satellite imagery recently released by the private company Maxar.
The video below, showing a Ukrainian M113 armored personnel carrier being used as an armored ambulance conducting a casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) mission in the ruins of Soledar, underscores the intensity of the fighting and the utility of armored vehicles for this critical role.
With all this in mind, if Russian forces do eventually capture Soledar and Bakhmut, the victory could be pyrrhic, especially for the Russian mercenary firm Wagner. The company has direct links to Russia's intelligence community and its head, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is a major ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. There have been suggestions that Prigozhin is hoping to use Wagner to secure a victory to strengthen his own political position in Russia and gain control over lucrative salt and gypsum mines in this area of Ukraine. The caverns there can also be used for secure munitions storage and as bunkers, in general.
“Out of its force of nearly 50,000 mercenaries (including 40,000 convicts), the company [Wagner] has sustained over 4,100 killed and 10,000 wounded, including over 1,000 killed between late November and early December near Bakhmut,” a senior official in President Joe Biden's administration reportedly told CNN for a piece earlier this week. The Russians “cannot sustain these kinds of losses.”
“If Russia does eventually seize Bakhmut, Russia will surely characterize this, misleadingly, as a ‘major victory,'" that individual added. "But we know that is not the case. If the cost for each 36 square miles of Ukraine [the approximate size of Bakhmut] is thousands of Russians over seven months."
In addition to Wagner units, the Russian paratroopers, more commonly referred to by the acronym VDV and widely understood to be some of the country's best-trained and equipped ground forces, have been heavily committed to the fight. The U.K. Ministry of Defense said today in a daily update on the conflict that it had assessed VDV units being recommitted from areas of southern Ukraine to the eastern end of the country earlier this month.
Calls for more military aid for Ukraine, and for that assistance to include more robust weapon systems, also come amid fears that Russia may be preparing for one or more new major offensives in the spring. There have persistently been fears that Russian forces could try again to push from the north into Ukraine, including from Belarus, and make another play to capture the capital Kyiv.
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced today that General Oleg Salyukov, the top officer in charge of Russia's ground forces, had traveled to Belarus to inspect forces in that country.
"We do know that Russian forces have conducted exercises with Belarusian forces, but at this time, no indication of any type of offensive action ... looks imminent," Press Secretary Ryder said today when asked about Russian forces in Belarus and the potential for a spring offensive in the north.
Salyukov was just recently named as a direct deputy to General Valeryi Gerasimov, Russia's Chief of the General Staff. This was as part of a larger shakeup that saw Gerasimov take over as the top officer in charge of Russia's war in Ukraine, replacing General Sergey Surovikin, the head of Russia's Aerospace Forces, who had only been given that responsibility three months ago. Colonel-General Aleksey Kim, Deputy of the Chief of the General Staff, is also now a deputy to Gerasimov in his capacity overseeing the war in Ukraine.
This reshuffling is particularly notable when it comes to Gerasimov, who was rumored to have fallen from Putin's good graces after Russia's initial all-out invasion plan ended in spectacular battlefield failures. Gerasimov has also faced major public criticism from hawkish pundits and other figures inside Russia.
"This is a significant development in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approach to managing the war," the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in a public assessment of the leadership changes yesterday. "The deployment of the CGS as theatre commander is an indicator of the increasing seriousness of the situation Russia is facing, and a clear acknowledgment that the campaign is falling short of Russia’s strategic goals. The move is likely to be greeted with extreme displeasure by much of the Russian ultra-nationalist and military blogger community, who have increasingly blamed Gerasimov for the poor execution of the war."
Surovikin had also reportedly been a favorite of Prigozhin, which has led some experts and observers to raise the possibility that his demotion in favor of Gerasimov may be part of an attempt to weaken the Wagner chief's influence.
A significant number of Russian warships, including amphibious warfare vessels, and submarines have left Novorossiysk on the country's Black Sea coast, according to a report yesterday from Naval News. This could point to preparations for a new operation of some kind. There have long been concerns that Russia could seek to mount a major amphibious operation in southern Ukraine, possibly as far west as Odesa. However, to date, those fears have not materialized and Ukraine's coastal defense posture has improved significantly, including with the addition of shore-based Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
Artillery continues to be a major factor in the conflict in Ukraine. The video below offers a dramatic look at one of Ukraine's French-supplied CAESAR 155mm self-propelled howitzers firing at night.
Recent footage of a Ukrainian artillery unit equipped with German-made PzH 2000 155mm self-propelled howitzers has highlighted the diversity of ammunition that the country has received from its international partners. Rounds seen inside one of the PzH 2000s include SMArt 155 shells, each loaded with two anti-tank submunitions, and M1712A1s, a modern type that uses an "insensitive" high-explosive filler that is less likely to detonate if hit by enemy fire than older explosives like TNT and is just generally safer to handle all around.
Earlier this week, Foreign Policy reported that Turkey has supplied Ukraine with some number of artillery shells loaded with U.S.-designed Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM) submunitions. DIPCM submunitions have both anti-armor and anti-personnel capabilities. They are also controversial given their historically high dud rate, which can result in large amounts of unexploded submunitions that then present hazards to friendly forces and innocent bystanders.
Ukrainian forces reportedly used U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to conduct another major strike on a Russian-controlled facility inside occupied territory in the eastern part of the country. More than 80 Russian troops were said to have been killed in a school-turned-barracks in the Luhansk region.
However, there have been recent reports that the total volume of artillery fire in many places has decreased dramatically. This could be, in part, due to shortages of artillery shells that both Ukrainian and Russian forces have reportedly been experiencing.
Ukraine's state-run arms industry conglomerate Ukroboronprom recently announced that new domestic production of 82mm mortar projectiles has begun, with NATO assistance, which could point to these ammunition supply issues. Earlier this month, pictures emerged showing that new production 152mm artillery shells had also begun to reach the front.
Unsurprisingly, Ukrainian and Russian artillery pieces have also been prime targets given their importance on the battlefield. The picture below appears to show a destroyed M109A5Ö (also sometimes written M109A5Oe) 155mm self-propelled howitzer, an Austrian-upgraded version of the U.S.-made M109A5, examples of which Ukraine received last year from Lithuania.
Ukraine's international partners continue to work to bolster the country's air defenses. On Tuesday, Canada announced that it was purchasing National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) from the United States to then send to the Ukrainian armed forces. The United States has already transferred NASAMSs to Ukraine, as you can read more about here.
Lithuania announced its intention to send Ukraine a batch of 40mm L70 anti-aircraft guns yesterday. Though dated, these weapons could still be useful against lower and slower-flying threats, especially Russia's Iranian-made drones. Weapons of this type can also be very effective against ground targets.
Ukrainian forces have already been employing 7.62x54mm Maxim machine guns, a design that predates World War I, in the anti-drone role, as seen below.
The video below reportedly shows a column of Russian T-90M tanks heading toward Ukraine. These are Russia's most advanced operational main battle tanks.
Ukrainian forces have reportedly an older T-90S tank, which is an export variant of the T-90. Its appearance in Ukraine could be another example of the lengths Russia has been forced to go to replenish its stocks of tanks and other heavy armored vehicles amid major losses over the last 11 months of fighting.
Russian forces continue to employ versions of the Lancet loitering munition, as evidenced by the pictures and videos below.
Various other tiers of uncrewed aerial vehicles, including modified commercial types carrying improvised munitions, continue to be actively employed on both sides of the conflict.
As such, counter-drone capabilities have become another major factor on the battlefield in Ukraine.
The video below may offer a rare look at the Shtora-1 defense system on a T-90 tank in action. Shtora-1 is a multi-component system that includes jammers intended to disrupt lasers and electro-optical guidance systems associated with anti-tank missiles. It can also automatically activate defensive smoke grenade launchers after detecting an enemy laser, which is what may be seen in the footage here.
Russian forces are still adding improvised armor to lighter vehicles, something that they have been doing since very early in the conflict in response to, among other things, the prevalence of various light anti-armor weapons among Ukrainian units. The picture immediately below shows a particularly unusual up-armored Kamaz truck with the cab from what appears to be a Rys light armored vehicle (a version of the Italian Iveco LMV that had been made in Russia under license) fitted in the back.
A report about another potential strike involving a Ukrainian drone inside Russia proper yesterday appears to have turned out to have actually been a Russian drone crashing for unexplained reasons. The wreckage at the site looks to show the remains of a Forpost-R drone, a version of the Israeli-designed IAI Searcher made in Russia under license, which had been armed with a KAB-20 small precision-guided munition.
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