Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Tank Deliveries Could Mark Turning Point in War

I'm interested to see how this plays out. 

At Der Spiegel, "There is enormous relief in Kyiv that, after months of hesitation, the West is now willing to supply main battle tanks. But can the Leopard 2s supplied by Germany and its allies really turn the tide on the battlefield?":

It's the end of January, and the industrial city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine can only be reached by a few roads. The threat of being surrounded by Russian troops is ever present. Driving on one of these narrow country roads through the hilly landscape, the thunder of detonations already in your ears, you can make out some of the Ukrainians' old T-72 tanks between the trees – none of Panzerhaubitzer 2000 or Gepard air defense tanks sent by Germany, no American HIMARS multiple rocket launchers. That's not surprising given that, statistically, there is only one of these Western-supplied devices for every 10 or 20 kilometers of front lines?

Instead, a gun on wheels appears from behind an embankment, looking as if it had rolled out of a period film: a 57-millimeter caliber cannon, dating back to the end of World War II and mounted on trucks dating from the 1960s. Target control is adjusted from a delivery van, on whose roof a Starlink satellite link maintains contact with the reconnaissance unit that launches drones.

The front around Bakhmut shows the extent to which Ukraine is reliant on military aid from the West. The Ukrainian military has modernized its arsenal, mainly with NATO's help. But the wear and tear of the war is so great that Ukrainians are forced in some cases to defend themselves against the Russian attackers using ancient equipment.

One of the fighters with the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, a unit of reservists and volunteers in the Donbas, introduces himself as "Blacksmith." Outside of war, he's an iron craftsman, but now he's an artilleryman. "Pilot" used to be a top manager at a turbine manufacturer. Only the youngest one still seems to have kept his real first name: Dima used to earn his money as a camera assistant on large film productions. Now, he controls the drones.

For over a month, the three milled and tinkered with recycled weapons in an old repair shop. In November, they fired the first of them. And how was it? "Very loud. But it's no big deal. I'm a punk musician on the side."

"A Game Changer on the Battlefield"

Nowhere along the approximately 1,000-kilometer-long front is the fighting in Ukraine currently as fierce as it is in the Donbas. And few cities there have been attacked by Russia's troops as often in recent weeks as Bakhmut. Wave after wave of regular army units and Wagner Group mercenaries have continuously pressed the Ukrainian defenders. Last Wednesday, the Ukrainians admitted that they had to withdraw from the town of Soledar near Bakhmut.

This makes the relief in Kyiv that Germany has agreed to supply modern Leopard 2 battle tanks, after months of hesitation, all the greater. Together with their European partners, the Germans plan to deliver a total of two battalions of 40 Leopards each. The United States announced it would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks. Shortly after that, Britain promised Kyiv 14 Challenger tanks. The development marks a turning point. Previously, the West had been reluctant to export such offensive weapons to Ukraine.

According to Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander of the Ukrainian forces, his army needs 300 Western tanks and 600 armored vehicles to really make a difference against the Russians on the battlefield. Kyiv is nonetheless hoping that the European and American move will mark an inflection point in the war.

Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter that he was sincerely grateful to Chancellor Olaf Scholz and "all our friends in Germany." Deputy Foreign Minister Andriy Melnyk spoke to the news agency Deutsche Press Agentur of an historic moment. He said that Berlin's decision to supply tanks is a "game changer on the battlefield." NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is also convinced that the Leopards could help Ukraine "defend itself, win and prevail as an independent nation" at a "critical moment" in the war, as he tweeted on Wednesday. Russia's ambassador in Berlin, Sergei Nechaev, on the other hand, described the planned delivery as "highly dangerous" on Twitter. He said the move would "take the conflict to a new level of confrontation."

Thus far, tanks have played a largely secondary role in the war. They have primarily been used to provide support to artillery efforts and haven't really been used in direct combat. Military experts believe this could now change. Because of their mobility and range, the Leopard tanks are among the best in the world. They are also more effective than Soviet models at firing accurately while traveling at full speed.

According to a report by CNN, the Americans have already suggested to the Ukrainian military that they should change tactics. Instead of getting bogged down in battles of attrition like Bakhmut, they believe the Ukrainians should make quick, unexpected advances. The Western allies are already providing modern armored personnel carriers and troop transport vehicles for this purpose, as well as additional artillery and air defenses.

In a future advance, the Leopards could ideally attack Russian positions while the transports carrying the infantrymen break through into enemy territory. Mobile flak tanks like Germany's Gepard would protect against air strikes and at the same time create more space for Ukraine's own fighter jets. Artillery support would come from the the rear with, for example, Germany's self-propelled Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzer.

The Ukrainians already successfully tested a surprise strategy, even with their limited resources, in late summer during their counteroffensive in Kharkiv. Since then, however, the Russians have become more attuned to the enemy and have reinforced their positions...

Keep reading.