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Will western tanks make a difference in Ukraine?

Like many men with the combination of an over-healthy ego, and an appreciation for history, yours truly has at various times fantasised about whether, with the benefit of hindsight, I could have been the general to turn the tide of some of history’s great battles. What if Napoleon had kept his forces concentrated at Waterloo, instead of sending a third of them haring off on a wild goose chase after the Prussians? What if James II had not sent the better part of his army to hang out in a marsh during the battle of the Boyne?

Wars, and history, often turn on “what ifs”. In that context, the decision of the USA and Germany to send Ukraine a supply of main battle tanks might be considered an attempt to avoid an obvious “what if?”. Presumably, President Biden does not want to be facing re-election next year with Russian soldiers advancing on Kiev, and his signature foreign policy intervention facing a slow and catastrophic failure, while critics say “why didn’t you just send the tanks, when they were asked for, and the whole war might have been turned?”

There is another reason to send the tanks, too: There is, it is abundantly clear, no neutral position for the west to take in this conflict, because a neutral position, one where weapons are not sent and the Ukrainians are not bolstered, will lead inevitably to a slow, and costly, but almost certain, Russian victory.

One of the reasons that opponents of arming Ukraine struggle to sound convincing to many people is the refusal to admit the cost of their policy: They can articulate perfectly well the cost of sending weapons, but they refuse to acknowledge the cost of not sending weapons. You are not, if you take that position, arguing for peace. You are arguing for the relative strengthening of Russia over Ukraine, and likely the conquest of the latter country.

But at the same time, there are fair questions to ask about western policy, which seems to be devolving into an old style half-in half-out fudge. On the one hand, unwilling to give Ukraine the tools to deliver a decisive victory, and on the other hand, willing to supply just enough – months after it is needed – to maintain what is in very real danger of becoming an indefinite stalemate.

The stalemate is bad for everyone. It is bad for Ukrainians, who are seeing their country becoming a permanent warzone. It is bad for Europeans, who continue to suffer from the sanctions on Russia. It is bad for Russians – and I do not mean those in the Kremlin – who continue to see their young men conscripted, and by all accounts poorly equipped, to be used as human wave cannon fodder in the Donbass. About the only people actually – and arguably – benefitting from the conflict are the Americans, and the US Arms industry. The former gets to cripple its oldest and biggest geopolitical foe by dragging it into a Vietnam type stalemate and slowly attriting its economy and armed forces. The latter gets a conflict that allows it a steady stream of orders without ever having to go to a war production footing, and risk the war coming to a decisive end.

Perhaps the fudge is all that the public will bear, because there now seems to be a stalemate in western public opinion, as well as on the battlefield. On the one hand, the people who think the West is helping too much, on the other those who think it is helping too little, and in the middle a vast tranche of people who seem to think that either of the previous two positions would be unacceptably extreme, and that stalemate is somehow the moderate and reasonable choice.

As I admitted at the top of this piece, I am very much an amateur when it comes to understanding warfare and history, but that said, there is little to suggest – and there are precious few actual experts who would argue – that these tanks Ukraine is now to receive will break the stalemate. Chances are, because of the nature of this war, that most of them – and the men who will pilot them – will be gone from this world in a matter of months, and we will be back to square one again.

As such, the strategy – if there is one – appears to be to bleed the Russians to the negotiating table.

In all of this, it should not be forgotten that this war was the brainchild of President Putin. And that for all that western strategy has its problems, the war has been, and remains, an unmitigated disaster for the once-vaunted Russian Army. But it increasingly seems that western strategy is about bleeding Russia, more than it is about helping Ukraine restore its borders quickly, and decisively.

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