Ukraine gets its tanks: Poland sending Leopard 2, and other nations may follow

Ukraine gets its tanks: Poland sending Leopard 2, and other nations may follow
Poland A5

Poland will gift Ukraine a ‘company’ of Leopard 2 main battle tanks, the first nation to make such a pledge (Polish MoD)

BELFAST — In what could signal the start of European nations sending main battle tanks to Ukraine, Poland today announced it will supply Kyiv with Leopard 2 tanks as part of a wider “international coalition” donation effort.

The plan, officially revealed by Polish President Andrzej Duda during a trilateral meeting in Lviv today with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, marks a decisive change in collective Western thinking by offering up weaponry that was once perceived to be stepping over a Russian red line or potentially escalatory in nature.

“A company of Leopard tanks for Ukraine will be transferred as part of building an international coalition,” Duda said in a Jan 11 social media post. “Such a decision [has] already [been taken] in Poland.”

Details of timing or quantities were not immediately available. Duda’s reference to a “company” implies Warsaw is committing to supply around 12 Leopard 2 tanks, a very small percentage of the 242 units it operates, according to figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

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Europe holds an arsenal of over 2,000 of the German-manufactured vehicles, with operators besides Poland including Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. While the other members of what Duda called an “international coalition” have not been identified, a key Finnish lawmaker on Friday suggested it was time to send Leopard 2 tanks to Kyiv as well.

Advocates for Ukraine have been arguing for months that what Kyiv truly needs are main battle tanks, the kind of vehicles capable of providing firepower and protection to not only hold the line against Russia but potentially push back and reclaim more territory. In November, the Council on Foreign Relations published a piece calling for 90 Leopard 2s to be sent to Ukraine, as part of a coalition effort.

“The more that countries donate tanks, the easier it will be to share the burden of giving them away” the authors wrote then. “The same applies to stored reserve vehicles, where only a few are in operable condition, with the rest in need of restoration. The more countries share this effort, the more they can achieve with low numbers per country, and the cheaper it will be to refurbish phased-out vehicles.”

The supply of the main battle tanks arrives as Ukraine looks to mount a spring counteroffensive to reclaim territories lost to Russia and ahead of a new Ramstein Ukraine contact group meeting on Jan. 20 where Western leaders could agree on additional Leopards being transferred, potentially alongside US Stryker armored protection vehicles.

“The Leopard 2 supply will give Ukraine access to a suite of vehicles they haven’t had access to since the war with Russia started and by all accounts will be very effective against Russian armor,” said Ed Arnold Research Fellow for European Security at the UK-based Royal United Services Institute.

The Leopard 2 A4 variant is equipped with a 120 mm smoothbore cannon, fire control computer and offers a range of 450km, according to manufacturer KMW. Warsaw signed off on a A4 upgrade effort in December 2015.

Arnold added that the operational impact of the Leopard tanks will depend on how many are delivered.

“It’s a very logical step to focus on the Leopard because there are far more of them in use across Europe compared to [other main battle tanks like the British Army’s] Challenger 2,” a reference to reports this week linking the UK to a potential new agreement to send those vehicles to Kyiv.

“The Government has committed to match or exceed last year’s funding for military aid to Ukraine in 2023, and we will continue to build on recent donations with training and further gifting of equipment,” said a UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson in a statement, declining to comment on Challenger 2 specifically.

At a capability level the Leopard 2 will offer Ukraine greater firepower, greater mobility and better protection from enemy fires supported by more modern countermeasures that Ukraine has been predominately relying on with the Soviet-era T-72 tanks, according to Arnold.

That considered, underfunding by the Bundeswehr and different standards among export customers mean that many Leopards lack the protection, weapon, and electronics upgrades of the latest version, the A7+.

Fielding the Leopard through a common logistics supply chain appears to be feasible because of how many European operators use the tanks, but a number of drawbacks include their size as they are considered relatively easy to spot from distance, require more fuel, and need a crew of four, one more than the T-72. Perhaps most problematic of all, at 55-plus metric tons, they are too heavy to safely cross many Ukrainian bridges.

In 2015, Ukrainian transportation authorities banned vehicles over 44 metric tons (49 US tons) citing potential damage to bridges and highways, an issue that could prove troublesome in terms of leading to excessive training for Ukrainian tank crews, commanders, staff planning, supply units, and maintenance on the Leopard 2, once deliveries have been made.

Sydney J. Freedberg in Washington contributed to this report.