Could Canada and NATO tanks risk escalating the war in Ukraine?
Canada is sending four massive Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine. While four may not seem like very many, they are part of a larger fleet of similar tanks being delivered to Ukraine by the United States, the UK, Poland, Germany, and other NATO alliance members.
The donation of tanks follows a major debate in national capitals over the appropriate mix of weapons to help the Ukrainians fight off the Russian invasion.
Germany initially refused to send its Leopard 2 tanks for fear of stoking an escalation of the war – and drawing in NATO directly. Nuclear conflict would surely ensue and Germany would be on the front lines.
But after the United States decided to donate several dozen M1A1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, Germany followed suit with 14 Leopard 2s and gave the green-light to other nations wanting to donate their German-made Leopard 2s to Ukraine, including Canada.
Speaking to The New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast, their senior correspondent covering national security, Eric Schmitt, explained how the U.S. assesses the frequent requests for arms it receives from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Schmitt said, “So, at the beginning of the war President Zelensky of Ukraine was asking for the moon. He wanted everything he could get his hands on, as many weapons and arms as possible to repel this huge Russian invasion.”
“There’s an evolution to all this, both in what they need, how they can use it, and then there’s also been very much of an evolution in the risk calculation that the Biden administration and the West has gone through,” says Schmitt.
Over the course of the war, the West has asked three essential questions:
- What do the Ukrainians actually need right then and there? What’s going to be most effective in fighting the Russians?
- Can you trust the Ukrainians to use this responsibly? And can they actually handle this kind of weaponry, or is it to advanced for them?
- To what extent does providing this kind of weaponry risk escalating the fight with Russia to drag the United States and NATO into an even further conflict?
Especially important for the Biden Administration has been wanting to avoid escalating the conflict, while also helping the Ukrainians drive Russia out of its internationally recognized territory.
Can the West predict accurately how Russia will respond?
How can NATO be sure that Putin’s “red lines” are avoided? Schmitt says that arms transfers have moved from defensive, to offensive weapons. Limits are imposed initially, but with each phase of the campaign the risk has increased.
“Things like fighter Jets or longer range missiles, things like that that could strike inside of Russia itself, these are seen as kind of no-go red lines for the Biden administration, as they still are trying to calculate the risk of escalation spiraling out of control with the Russians,” he said.
The transfer of main battle tanks such as the Leopard 2s are clearly not for defence – they are intended to punch through Russian defences and seize territory.
If the Biden administration is concerned about the potential for escalation, the same concern does not seem to be shared in Canada where the government is clear that the tanks will give Ukraine an offensive capability.
“These tanks will allow Ukraine to liberate even more of its territory and defend its people from Russia’s brutal invasion. These four tanks are combat-ready and will be deployed over the coming weeks,” Defence Minister Anita Anand said.
The transfer of main battle tanks from NATO to Ukraine has not gone unnoticed in Russia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said his country’s military is working on new plans to cut off supplies of weapons and ammunition sent from abroad for the Ukrainian forces.
“We observe that Ukraine is receiving more and more and better Western weapons,” Lavrov said. “Railway lines, bridges and tunnels” are being considered, reported Al Jazeera.
“I assume that they will make professional decisions on how to make these deliveries more difficult or, ideally, stop them altogether,” he added.
- Listen to “Why the U.S. Is Sending More Powerful Weapons to Ukraine,” by the New York Times’ The Daily, posted on January 19, 2023 (includes transcript)
(Cover: ADAZI, LATVIA, FEBRUARY 2018 – Leopard 2 Tank at NATO forces exercises. Spanish army conducted training exercise with Leopard 2A6 Main Battle Tanks and armored fighting. Via Shutterstock)