KYIV, UKRAINE – JANUARY 22: Civilian participants in a Kyiv Territorial Defence unit train on a Saturday in a forest on January 22, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Across Ukraine thousands of civilians are participating in such groups to receive basic combat training and in time of war would be under direct command of the Ukrainian military. While Ukrainian officials have acknowledged the country has little chance to fend off a full Russian invasion, Russian occupation troops would likely face a deep-rooted, decentralised and prolonged insurgency. Russia has amassed tens of thousands of troops on its border to Ukraine. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
By John A. Nagl
The news that the United States and Germany are providing tanks to the brave defenders of Ukraine is a significant development in that now almost yearlong war.
A friend who knows that I spend more time than I should thinking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine asked about the impact of the delivery of tanks on the likely course of the war. While predictions are difficult, especially about the future, as a longtime driver of tanks and student of war, I offered some predictions.
The first is that tanks are offensive weapons that provide Ukraine with the ability to retake territory in the east of the country that has been captured, not just in the past year, but since the war began in 2014. Tanks offer a combination of mobile protected firepower that no other combat system can match.
They are most effective as part of a combined arms team with mechanized infantry to clear danger areas and when supported by artillery to suppress enemy fighters.
Without tanks, the Ukrainian military has been very effective in a largely defensive role with anti-tank missiles to defeat Russian armor, but tanks will allow them to break through defensive enemy lines and rapidly exploit any gains; think about the German advance through the Ardennes, forming a “bulge” in American lines that Patton’s Third Army struggled to seal. This time, it will be the Russians who face a break though that may well end by restoring Ukraine’s prewar border with Russia in the east.
American hesitation to provide Ukraine with M1 Abrams tanks, named after the tank battalion commander who led Patton’s Third Army in the Battle of the Bulge, involved both depleted uranium armor in our old M1’s and the thirsty turbine engines that propel them; German Leopards are propelled by more economical and easier to maintain diesel engines and have no depleted uranium to complicate things.
There are also plenty of them available across Europe with which to equip the Ukrainian army. Their employment will have a significant impact on the war.
In fact, the impact of the Abrams and Leopards should hasten the end of the fighting, at least in the east. The real challenge will come when the eastern border between Russia and Ukraine has been restored. Ukrainian attention will turn to the south, to the Crimean peninsula, rightfully theirs but of immense and intense interest to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Much as he will hate giving up the Donbas region of Ukraine, it is unlikely that Putin will actually use nuclear weapons to prevent its recapture.
Crimea is another issue entirely. Putin personally opened the multi-billion dollar Kerch Strait Bridge that connects Russia to Crimea and views it as one of his greatest accomplishments.
While Putin has threatened to use weapons of mass destruction many times in the face of reversals of fortune during the course of the war, only to back off in the face of Western promises of significant reprisals, Crimea could truly be a bridge too far. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that Putin would use a nuclear weapon against Kiev in response to a significant Ukrainian attack on Crimea that was likely to succeed.
The destruction of Kiev and the loss of the Ukrainian government would be a heavy blow indeed. While Western reaction would be severe—likely the sinking of the Russian Black Sea Fleet by American airpower after a severe warning to Russia not to engage the American planes delivering the missiles, even if Russia had the ability to do so—that would not bring back Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or the extraordinary leadership he has provided to the Ukrainian cause. It is impossible to predict the second and third order effects of only the second time a country has used nuclear weapons in war, but they are unlikely to be good for anybody.
And so, even as the arrival of tanks in Ukraine promises the prospect of regaining territory in the east of the country and restoring the prewar border there, caution is in order regarding Crimea. Regaining that territory may have to wait until Putin is no longer leading Russia, an eventuality that may be hastened by the increasing effectiveness of Western sanctions. His departure will mark both the end of the war and the best chance for Ukraine to regain possession of the Crimean Peninsula.
John A. Nagl is a retired Army officer who now teaches at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. This article is his opinion and does not reflect the views of the Army War College, the United States Army, or the Department of Defense. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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