Improving Ukraine's battlefield strength can ensure a prolonged stalemate
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
This is a mood to consider while assessing the potential impact of the recently announced deliveries of German, British, and American-built tanks to the Ukrainian armed forces. Enthusiasts like former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson claim that this will finally turn the tide in Kyiv’s favour, while critics warn that it risks further escalation which will unnecessarily widen and prolong the conflict.
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Most likely neither of those assessments is quite correct. Firstly, it is worth bearing in mind the significant time lag between announcements and fulfilments, so at this point it is not at all clear when the first tanks will arrive in Ukraine and how long it will take to train local crews before the first Leopard, Abrams, or Challenger will effectively join the frontlines. Secondly, there is the matter of numbers: the US seems to be determined to deliver up to 30 tanks, the UK 14, Germany 14, the Netherlands 18, Poland 14, and Norway 8. Taken together that is 98 tanks, which would be equal to a little less than two US army battalions. While it is unclear how many tanks Russia can field in the coming months, the number is most certainly in the thousands — and that is an estimate by Ukraine-friendly sources.
The argument, of course, also applies in reverse. It is equally unlikely that 100 tanks will cause an immediate escalation in the conflict, and Russia still has other cards to play should it decide to cut off the few remaining energy systems going into Europe — which will probably face a diesel shortage after a new round of sanctions on refined products starting on 5th February.
It is, however, an important symbolic change. Indeed, it signifies that Germany has given up its initial stance of assuming a quick resolution of the conflict and will now be less obstructionist when it comes to the delivery of advanced weapons systems to Ukraine. Simultaneously, whether by genius or luck, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has tied that willingness to the implicit condition that Berlin will act only if the US does so first, which allows him to share part of the responsibility and ward off pressure from his coalition partners, who are much more eager in their support for Ukraine.
Assuming that the Kremlin leadership is prone to miscalculations but not entirely irrational, it is not implausible to suggest that a relatively inconsequential number of tanks could have a much larger impact politically. A small number of Western tanks will not make a recapturing of all lost territories possible, but it also limits the potential for future Russian offensive operations in key areas, where 30 Abrams and 30 Leopards could most definitely make a tactical difference.
An extended stalemate may trigger a realisation on both sides that the frontlines will not significantly move in either direction. The extent to which such a scenario will materialise will depend on whether Russia can launch a renewed offensive before Western equipment is ready for action, and whether leaders in Berlin and Washington signal to Moscow that this is not a one-off, but rather the beginning of a new level of sustained military support.
It is a grim possibility that only after a prolonged and static conflict, with neither side hopeful of imminent total victory, will peace talks become likely.