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Opinion Heavy tanks — and a push from the U.S. — are key to Ukraine’s success

Ukrainian soldiers ride in an armored personnel carrier along a road not far from Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

It would be a mistake to take a snapshot of Russia’s blood-soaked ground campaign in Ukraine — fighting along a relatively static front line stretching across hundreds of miles — and conclude the war is a stalemate. Russian President Vladimir Putin, intent on Ukraine’s destruction and plainly uninterested in peace talks, is preparing fresh troops for major new assaults, most likely in the next few weeks or months. Military experts believe he is also planning another push to capture Kyiv and decapitate the Ukrainian government — effectively a conclusive victory for Moscow and a defeat for the West. The United States and its NATO allies cannot allow that.

To prevent it, and to position Kyiv not only to blunt the coming Russian attacks but to push the enemy back to pre-invasion lines, Ukraine needs more and heavier weapons. First on the list are top-grade battle tanks — specifically, German-made Leopard 2s — in sufficient numbers to turn the war’s tide. For that to happen, Germany’s assent is required. And given the training and logistical hurdles Ukraine faces before it could deploy such heavy tanks, the timing is critical.

President Biden and key European leaders have so far been mindful to calibrate military aid to Ukraine so as not to risk spiraling escalation. The Kremlin has brandished precisely that threat of escalation, including barely veiled hints it is prepared to use nuclear weapons, to crimp Western arms shipments — which, though considerable, have mainly enabled Ukraine to survive.

Michael O'Hanlon: Biden’s policy on arming Ukraine might not be popular — but it’s right

However, near-term survival alone is not a sufficient strategy for Ukraine, and therefore for the West. Mr. Putin, content to play a long game in hope of wearing down U.S. and European public opinion and resolve, regards time as his ally. If he is right — and there is reason to worry he is — Western policies and provisions that maintain the status quo are a poor bet. And make no mistake: Mr. Putin is betting the house — his imperial ambitions, his legacy, his own political survival.

That realization has now seized Washington and its key allies, which have started to respond accordingly. Western officials have rightly begun thinking about how to win the war, not just how not to lose it. Weapons systems that six months ago were regarded as crossing a red line are now being supplied to the Ukrainians, though still not in numbers needed to break the Russian lines. Earlier this month, the United States and Germany agreed to send armored fighting vehicles, including about 50 U.S.-made Bradleys, and France said it is sending light tanks. In recent days, Britain signaled it will provide Kyiv with Challenger 2s, the first Western-made battle tanks to be sent to Ukraine since Russia invaded 11 months ago.

Ukraine, whose supply of aging, Soviet-made tanks has dwindled, has pleaded for Western tanks from the war’s outset. The British move is therefore a milestone; it is also insufficient. Ukraine’s top military commander, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, said in an interview last month that his forces need 300 Western tanks to shift the war’s trajectory in Ukraine’s favor. The British, who have only 220 or so Challengers in service, are reported to be sending Ukraine about a dozen.

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There are other possible sources of heavy Western-made tanks that could be game changers for Ukraine. Although U.S. M1 Abrams tanks are not plausible — too heavy, costly to operate and too maintenance-dependent — French Leclercs and Italian Arietes might be. The best and most numerous option are German-made Leopards. Several thousand of them are in service, mainly in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Poland is willing to send them to Ukraine, and others might follow suit — but none can be reexported without a green light from Berlin.

So far, Germany is on the fence, its coalition government apparently split, and polls indicate the German public is also divided on the question. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is reluctant but also publicly on record as awaiting Washington’s input. Delivering Leopard tanks to Ukraine, he said earlier this month, depends “especially [on discussions] with our transatlantic partner, with the United States of America.”

That amounts to a plea for stepped-up U.S. leadership. The question is whether Mr. Biden, who has vowed not to permit a Russian victory and pledged to stick with Kyiv “as long as it takes,” is prepared to demonstrate even more resolve as the war in Ukraine approaches what is likely to be its decisive moment.

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