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Western tanks en route to Ukraine

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Germany and France must in turn decide whether or not to deliver Leopards and Leclercs to kyiv.

The taboo is lifted. And the rush to the East has begun for Westerners. Slowly at first, with the announcement of the delivery of light armored vehicles by France, the United States and Germany. In this initial phase, France, for once, was the first to take the plunge by offering kyiv tanks of Western manufacture, whereas until then, the – Eastern – allies of kyiv had only provided tanks of Soviet origin to Ukrainians. Undoubtedly because she had a lot to be forgiven for, in particular the President’s unfortunate sentence on the “safety guarantees” that should be provided to the Kremlin, or its injunction to “not to humiliate” Russia. “Providing AMXs was a way of taking a political position, because it is true that the attitude of Paris had been questioned by kyiv”, recognizes a senior diplomat.

The second phase, the shipment of heavy tanks, began last week and is expected to reach cruising speed in Ramstein, Germany, where defense ministers from Ukraine’s allies are due to meet on Friday January 20. Already, Poland and Finland have said they are ready to deliver part of their German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine. London has also promised twenty Challengers. We are awaiting the decision from Paris on the Leclerc tanks and from Berlin on its Leopards.

Why this sudden acceleration? There is now, among Westerners, a sense of urgency, not to say panic. “The risk of a new Russian offensive justifies the fact that we deliver more weapons to Ukraine”, summarizes a diplomatic source. The two camps, Ukraine and its allies on one side, Russia on the other, are engaged in a race of speed. On the ground, the fronts stagnate. But the Kremlin is probably preparing to declare a general mobilization which could send 500,000 men into the field. “The timing is critical. We are in a decisive phase of the war,” warns NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, urging members of the Alliance to provide more heavy weapons to Ukraine, to change the balance of power on the ground. Last week, the EU and NATO also pledged to provide kyiv with all the military means necessary to win against Russia.

Since February 24, the supposed “red lines” of Moscow were crossed one after the other by Westerners. At the very start of the war, the Kremlin warned that any Western military aid to Ukraine would be seen as a provocation. Then the veto concerned heavy weapons and finally anti-aircraft defense systems. Without any particular reaction from Moscow, apart from the intensification of the fighting and the destruction. Today the Kremlin promises to “burn” western tanks. On state television, propagandists for Vladimir Putin also suggested “preemptive strikes” against France, to make it disappear…

We support Ukraine but we don’t make war on Russia

A diplomatic source

Even today, some European capitals are reluctant to provide combat tanks that could enable the Ukrainian army to resist the next Russian offensive and to regain ground. This is the case of Berlin and Paris. Germany, first, one of the most cautious countries vis-à-vis aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the war. She might change her mind about the Leopards, but doesn’t want to be the first to do so. The delivery of the AMX light tanks was not only intended to prove the reality of the French commitment, but to facilitate the passage to the act of Germany, whose Leopard tanks are the most adapted to the Ukrainian terrain. Pressure was also exerted by Warsaw, because the delivery of Leopard tanks held by the countries of Central Europe requires a re-export authorization from Berlin. She would have, according to some sources, made her way to Berlin. Not necessarily yet the direct delivery of “German” Leopards.

Same reserve on the French side, where the question of Leclerc tanks is considered at the Élysée as a sensitive subject. The delivery of French combat tanks constitutes “a hypothesis” considered by Paris, according to a diplomat. It would make it possible to move the lines more quickly in Germany. Even limited to a few copies, it would send an important political signal to Ukraine and all its allies.

French stocks on the bone

But Paris, we feel, is still reluctant, and it’s not just because France’s stocks are on the bone after decades of defense budget cuts and the army shows little enthusiasm for this prospect. Nor even because of the problems of maintenance, training and production circuits that do not follow. “We support Ukraine but we are not waging war on Russia,” recalls a diplomatic source. At the Élysée, the logic of the balance to be kept between Moscow and kyiv, “to avoid further escalation by Russia”, has not disappeared. Likewise the illusion that France can still play a role of mediator between the two countries. When it comes to heavy tanks, some countries, again, are moving faster than others.

Berlin and Paris must decide by Friday whether or not to follow the initiatives of the United Kingdom and the states of central and northern Europe, by releasing their heavy tanks. Between increased aid to Ukraine and the deceptive preservation of good relations with France and Germany, Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron must choose. Will they reduce the delay they have accumulated on some of their European allies since the beginning of the war? If Emmanuel Macron wants to keep his place as leader within Europe, he must join the front runners of Ukraine’s allies. Because its position of caution, motivated by a fear of escalation by Moscow, has eroded its influence and France’s place on the continent.

Not to mention that Western military aid to Ukraine will undoubtedly continue to scale up in the coming months. In a tweet to Berlin, Ukrainian diplomat Andrij Melnyk discusses what kyiv’s next demands will probably be. “I have a creative proposal for our German friends. The German army has 93 decommissioned Tornado fighter planes which will soon be replaced by F35s. It’s an old fighter, but it’s still very powerful. Why not give these Tornado to Ukraine?” The debate has only just begun.

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