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Leopard 2 Tanks: Why Does Ukraine Want Them And What Are They?

Story Highlights
  • The U.S. has also been hesitant to send M1 Abrams tanks, which defence officials say are not as useful on the battlefield in Ukraine as the Leopard 2s
  • Another problem with the Abrams is that it uses more fuel than the Leopard 2, which is made to run on diesel fuel, and diesel is easier for Ukraine to get during a war.

Even though the U.S. and its NATO allies have announced another package of military aid to Ukraine that includes military vehicles, air defence systems, rockets, and missiles, the one piece of equipment that has come to dominate recent talks is missing: tanks.

Ukrainian officials have been asking the U.S. and Germany for hundreds of modern battle tanks for months.

At a meeting of defence officials this week in Ramstein, Germany, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said, “I could thank you a thousand times, and it would be just and fair, given everything we’ve already done.”

“But hundreds of “thank you”s are not hundreds of tanks,” he said.

Recent arguments have been about the German-made Leopard 2 battle tank, which is used by more than 20 countries, including more than a dozen NATO members.

Germany is getting more and more pressure to send some or let other countries, like Poland, send theirs.

So far, that has not been the case. “We can’t say right now when or how a decision will be made,” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said on Friday.

Military arms experts say that the German-made Leopard 2 is one of the best-known battle tanks in the world, maybe second only to the American-made M1 Abrams tank.

The Leopard 2 was first made for the West German army in the 1970s because of threats from the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They are made to move quickly over different types of terrain and fight enemy tanks, like the ones Russia has been using on the ground in Ukraine since the first days of its invasion last year.

Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, a German defence company that makes the tanks, says that each one has a 120-mm main gun with a 44- or 55-caliber and a 1,500-horsepower engine that lets it go as fast as 44 mph. About 60 tonnes of armour protects their crews from fire from the other side.

Poland is one of the countries that uses the Leopard 2. It has promised to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, but it has to get permission from Germany first.

Since February, when Russia started its invasion of Ukraine, tanks have been a big part of the battle.

For its part, Ukraine has mostly used T-72 tanks from the Soviet era. Other armoured vehicles, like Bradley fighting vehicles and Stryker combat vehicles from the U.S. and a shipment of Challenger 2 tanks from the U.K. that was just announced, have already been sent by the West, and more are on the way.

But none of them can match the accuracy, firepower, and mobility of modern German and American battle tanks. Officials from Ukraine have said that these tanks could be the key to a quick victory for Ukraine, maybe even this year.

That’s a better picture than what military experts in the West paint.

“There is no perfect solution. There isn’t just one thing that will make the whole conflict go away “retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges of the U.S. Army said this.

Still, he said, tanks from the West could play a role this spring, when Russia and Ukraine are likely to step up their efforts in the conflict.

Last month, the U.S. said it would train large groups of Ukrainian soldiers in combined arms tactics. These are large-scale military operations that use different kinds of weapons, such as aeroplanes, artillery, and tanks, together (like tanks).

In an interview with NPR earlier this month, Raphael Cohen, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, said, “The ability for us to train the Ukrainians to do these very complex manoeuvres is really important for them to build combat capability as they move forward with their offensive.”

So far, Russia’s biggest victory in the war has been taking over the area of Ukraine between the Donbas and Crimea. Since 2014, when Russia illegally took over Crimea, it has been controlled by Russia. Before the invasion last year, Crimea was only connected to Russia by a long road and rail bridge. By taking Mariupol and the land around it, Russian forces made it possible for people in Russia and the Donbas region of Ukraine to get to Crimea by land.

The retired lieutenant general Hodges said that this area could be the site of a new Ukrainian counteroffensive. “The Ukrainians know that Crimea is the most important piece of land,” he said.

With tanks from the West, Ukraine could make an armoured brigade that could be “the spearhead of a force that could break through those Russian defences down toward Mariupol,” Hodges said. “The goal is to keep Crimea from being connected to anything else.”

He also said that, in general, tanks can make infantry work better. Tanks can lead in open areas, making it safe for infantry to follow. In urban or wooded areas, infantry can move in first, making it harder for the enemy to hide and attack with anti-tank weapons while staying out of sight.

Germany has put off making a decision about the Leopard 2s over and over again. Because it makes the tanks, its allies, like Poland, need its permission to send them somewhere else.

Ukraine’s leaders had hoped to hear something on Friday, but German officials didn’t make a decision at the Ramstein meeting, so they will still have to wait.

On Friday, the German defence minister, Pistorius, said that the pros and cons of sending the tanks were still being looked at. “I am very sure that a decision will be made soon,” he said.

The U.S. has also been hesitant to send M1 Abrams tanks, which defence officials say are not as useful on the battlefield in Ukraine as the Leopard 2s, which are lighter and easier to maintain than newer versions of the Abrams.

“It just doesn’t make sense to give the Ukrainians an Abrams right now,” Sabrina Singh, a spokesperson for the Pentagon, said at a briefing on Thursday. “It would take a lot of work and cost a lot of money to keep an Abrams running.”

Another problem with the Abrams is that it uses more fuel than the Leopard 2, which is made to run on diesel fuel, and diesel is easier for Ukraine to get during a war.

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