- Although Western tanks are qualitatively superior to Russian tanks fighting in Ukraine, they will only affect the outcome of the war if they arrive in sufficient numbers, are used effectively, and are supported properly.
- The decision by Western governments to send tanks—the premier ground offensive weapon of modern armies—represents greater Western confidence in Ukraine.
- Russia will struggle to upgrade its own tank contingent in Ukraine to offset the new capability Western tanks will provide.
- For Western tanks to affect the war’s outcome, the West needs to send more of them, Ukraine needs to use them as part of a combined arms team, and it must develop the capability to logistically support them.
The decision by Western countries to send tanks to Ukraine is a welcome one, but tanks—at least in their current numbers—will not change the course of the war. Nevertheless, the decision represents increasing Western confidence in Ukraine, and an increasing tolerance for risk in supporting its effort to reverse Russia’s aggression.
Early in the war, Western countries were guided by two assumptions: that Ukraine would—probably sooner than later—succumb to Russia’s invasion, and that Western military assistance risked an escalation with Russia, which might easily spin out of control. These assumptions led the West to initially provide only simple, defensive weapons. US assistance, for example, consisted mostly of weapons of the kind the United States had provided prior to the war, such as Javelin shoulder-fired anti-tank and Stinger air defense missiles.
After all, if Ukraine’s defeat was likely within weeks or even a couple of months, more complex and potent weapons systems made little sense. First, the time it takes to ship them to Ukraine and train Ukrainian crews to use them meant they might not arrive in time to affect the outcome of the war. Next, if Ukraine surrendered, these weapons would fall into Russian hands, increasing the Kremlin’s military capability and its access to and understanding of Western military technology. Finally, more potent offensive weapons were seen as risking an escalation with Russia.
From Javelin to Abrams: A Long and Winding Road
But as winter faded, spring arrived, and Ukraine still stood, Western calculations began to change about providing more advanced weapons. Russia changed its strategy, as well. Having failed to take Kyiv in the opening phase of the war, the Kremlin announced
that it would refocus its efforts on “liberating” territory in eastern Ukraine. The concentration of Russian forces, command posts, and logistics nodes in eastern Ukraine provided juicy targets for long-range, precision artillery. But Ukraine had few systems that could do the job, so Western countries stepped in to provide them. The most visible and effective of these were the US High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). Since Washington first announced the deployments of HIMARS
to Ukraine in July 2022, the systems have had a devastating effect on Russian forces there. Their strikes on Russian command and logistics facilities
were at least partly responsible for the failure of Russia’s announced offensive in eastern Ukraine.
By the fall, not only had Russian forces not advanced, they had lost significant territory to Ukrainian counterattacks. So Russian strategy changed again, as did the Ukrainian and Western effort to counter it. Having failed to defeat Ukraine’s military on the battlefield, Russia stepped up its attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets, especially energy infrastructure. The Kremlin seemed to be calculating that a long, cold, dark winter would increase the pressure on Ukraine to seek a negotiated end to the war on Russia’s terms. Russian ballistic missiles and “suicide drones” purchased from Iran rained down, but Ukraine’s resolve did not waiver despite the hardships its people were enduring.
Western countries began providing Ukraine with more capable air defense systems to counter Russian missiles and drones. The United States announced
it would send eight National Advanced Surface to Air Missile Systems (NASAMS) to Ukraine, with the first two arriving in November. In December, the United States signaled
that it would also provide Ukraine a battery of Patriot air defense systems. NASAMS and Patriot are, respectively, medium- and long-range air defense weapons with the capability to shoot down Russian ballistic missiles, a capability previous air defense systems provided by the United States lacked.
As winter set in, the war evolved into a stalemate on the ground, with neither side able to make significant territorial gains. But Ukraine began warning
of a renewed Russian offensive timed for the winter or early spring. It was in this context that Western countries began to consider providing armored vehicles to Ukraine. If the Russian offensive materialized, armored personnel carriers (APCs) and tanks could move quickly around the battlefield to shore up areas of pressure on Ukrainian lines or blunt any Russian breakthroughs. However, if the Russian offensive did not materialize or quickly lost steam, the same APCs and tanks could support a Ukrainian offensive. Used properly, tanks and APCs—but especially tanks—bring a combination of speed, armored protection, and devastating firepower to the battlefield that is difficult to defend against.
A tank has three main capabilities: its mobility, the protection it offers its crew, and its ability to acquire and accurately engage targets at long range. In all of these, the tanks on offer to Ukraine from its Western partners are superior to the tanks Russia is using there. While it has sent a few dozen newer model T-90 tanks to the war, most Russian tanks in Ukraine are T-72 variants. These are based on Soviet technology that is nearly fifty years old, making them no match for the M1A2 Abrams, the Challenger II, and the Leopard II, all of which Western countries have agreed to provide.
Can Russia Meet the Challenge of New Western Tanks?
Western sanctions are complicating Russia’s attempts to upgrade its T-72 fleet for the war in Ukraine.
United States of America
Robert E. Hamilton
Colonel (Retired) Robert E. Hamilton, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Eurasian Studies at the U.S. Army War College and a Black Sea Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.