The turning point in the war happened today

January 24, 2022

Just four days after I worried that the West might fail Ukraine, I can report that it did not happen. In fact, today we are seeing some seismic changes in foreign policy that I consider the turning point in the war: the West committed to Ukrainian victory by sending Western tanks.

You know the saying, amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics. Any war that lasts more than a few weeks is invariably won by logistics — who can supply their troops in the field the longest. As I have been saying from the day this war started, Ukraine is 100% reliant on the West for its staying power on the front — otherwise, it’s partisan warfare at best. To liberate conquered territories, however, Ukraine also needs to pack an offensive punch, and for all the importance of artillery — still the queen of the battlefield — these sorts of operations just need tanks, hundreds of them. As I also noted, if the goal is for Ukraine to win by liberating its lands, then the logic of the war is inescapable: it will need tanks. Ukraine started the war with about 900, captured, according to Oryx, 543 Russian tanks, and received at least 514 tanks (mostly from Poland, 260+ and Czechia, 153). We have no reliable data on how many tanks Ukraine has lost, but Oryx reports that the Russians lost 1,642 out of an estimated 3,300 operational MBTs at the start of the invasion. (Since Oryx uses only fully documented proof, they seem to be counting about 70% of the actual losses, so it could be that Russia has lost up to 2,345 MBTs, a full 71% of its prewar operational fleet.) We have no comparable data on Ukrainian tank losses, but if we assume they’ve lost half of what they have, then they are currently left with only about 1,000 MBTs. The Russians have an unknown number in storage, but it’s the thousands. The good news is that Russia is sending refurbished and repaired tanks, and these are not very high quality. They will certainly be much worse than any Western tank Ukraine gets. At any rate, while the West will doubtless continue to scour the earth for more T-72s to buy for Ukraine, Western tanks would be much more valuable to the Ukrainians, and — given the enormous discrepancy in numbers — absolutely essential to achieving any serious liberation goals there. We should expect the West to send hundreds of Leopards and Abrams tanks to Ukraine, some in time for any spring offensive, but even more over the months that follow.

Bottom line: if West were serious about Ukraine winning, its tanks were always going to have to go there. There was never an alternative.

This is why the delay in reaching this obvious conclusion has been somewhat puzzling, causing some to wonder whether certain Western politicians (ahem, Scholz, ahem) do not actually want Ukraine to win. It’s a reasonable supposition because if one believes that Ukraine cannot prevail over Russia even to the extent of recovering its own pre-invasion territories, let alone Crimea, then one can believe that sending more arms, especially tanks, could risk escalation from the Russians. While these people could be sincerely committed to “we can’t let Russia win,” all they were willing to commit to the other side has been “we can’t let Ukraine lose.” In this view, the war would end in negotiations amid a stalemate on the battlefield.

I have explained many times why this view is thoroughly mistaken and why it does not account for Putin’s decision-making. TL;DR is that Putin’s regime will keep going while he is in power irrespective of the number of casualties. The only way to not let Russia win is to deny him his military objectives in Ukraine, and this means pushing VSRF outside the conquered territories. It has taken some people a long time to come around to this conclusion but if 99-year old Kissinger can do it (which he finally did, and advocated NATO membership for Ukraine at Davos), so can anyone.

After weeks of agonizing indecision, Germany has finally made its move today: Scholz will approve both sending German tanks to Ukraine and allowing others to do the same. Reportedly, there is already a 12-country coalition ready to send about 100 Leopards to Ukraine. The deal also seems to involve the US sending Abrams tanks (likely M1s for now) to Ukraine as well. With Poland getting over 100 M1s now and nearly 200 M2s starting next year, we are also building (or may have already built) maintenance facilities in Poland, which means the Abrams tanks can be fully serviced there, and would not have to travel to Ohio even for major repairs. Most maintenance is done in the field, so it’s more of a matter of setting up the logistics support for that anyway. Nobody does logistics better than the US military — I do not mean this lightly or metaphorically, but quite literally, we are untouched in this. And so I have no doubt that the Abrams will be fully maintained and supported in Europe as well.

Germany’s decision is part of a larger turn in foreign policy, as announced today by a statement published by Scholz’s SPD party. Its key takeaways are:

  • the war Russia started in Ukraine shows that Europe must take care of its own security
  • the old policy of “peace in Europe — only with Russia” is impossible with the current regime in Russia (there is some self-criticism in the document that SPD’s behavior over the past decade has not been without mistakes in that regard)
  • Germany must provide for its own security needs by strengthening the Bundeswehr (spending will finally match NATO minimum requirements)
  • Germany must take a leading role in Europe, which itself should conceive of itself as a geopolitical actor
  • Germany must reduce its reliance on imports from China, and diversify its suppliers
  • Germany must develop closer ties with Brazil, Argentina, and Chili, among others, to keep these countries from drifting into cooperation with Russia and China

The most important implication here is the (belated) recognition that as long as Putin’s regime rules in Russia, the country will remain an acute threat to Europe. This is a long-term view that goes beyond the termination of the current war, and it is exactly as it should be. Russia needs serious internal reforms before it can become a trusted participant in the international community again.

While the party’s leadership refrained from making a statement about the Leopards — saying this is Scholz’s prerogative — this document clearly laid the groundwork for the decision on the tanks. (I was initially apprehensive that it could be used to justify keeping the German Leopards so as not to “weaken” the Bundeswehr but it was already clear Germany would OK re-exports.)

Thus, the West has now created a formidable multi-member coalition to keep Ukraine supplied with tanks while the war continues. Russia would not have been able to counter this even if its entire Soviet-era tank park were in pristine condition, and it is not.

The other significant development today came from Switzerland, after intense diplomatic pressure (and probably not a few veiled threats about the future of the defense industry there). The Swiss have moved to change their definition of neutrality to allow the export of weapons to countries engaged in conflicts defined as violating international law by the UN General Assembly. This is a much more robust and sensible definition of neutrality that keeps Switzerland’s well deserved reputation as a big proponent of international law. In this case, UNGA has already declared (twice) the Russian invasion illegal, and so the effect would be the immediate unblocking of weapons and ammunition for Ukraine. Of special interest here is the ammunition for the German Gepard anti-aircraft systems that are so sorely needed.

There is going to be a lot of tough fighting ahead, but I consider today to mark the beginning of the end for Russia in this war. Even with its economy on war footing, even with hundreds of thousands newly mobilized men, even with assistance from Iran (which seems to be faltering with respect to the missiles), Russia cannot hope to outlast a united West or prevail with its WWI tactics against modern armaments and a highly motivated opponent. Until today, I thought there were non-negligible risks that our unity might falter. But with these developments, it becomes very unlikely that we do. It’s not impossible, of course, but very unlikely.

Russia’s Chief of General Staff and commander of the Ukrainian operation Gerasimov recently said that never it its modern history has Russia faced a unified global West. He has seen the writing on the wall. And all of this, without the West fielding armies or engaging more than 1% of its resources.

Now, what about them F-16s?

3 thoughts on “The turning point in the war happened today

  1. Might we be wrong in our Scholz-bashing? The WSJ this weekend (page A6) praises him: “Behind the scenes he played a key role in lifting the self-imposed trans-Atlantic taboo against sending Western-made tanks to Ukraine, persuading a reluctant U.S. president to join the effort, according to aides and Western officials involved in the talks. Yet because the effort was conducted secretly and never explained to voters or allies, it left his reputation diminished abroad and at home. … torn between pressure to take the lead in Europe’s efforts to help Ukraine and his country’s decadeslong pacifist history. … politics, like sausages, shouldn’t be watched in the making. … negotiations between Berlin and Washington involving the U.S. SoD, the national security adviser and the head of the CIA. In the end, President Biden unexpectedly abandoned a longstanding position not to donate Abrams tanks …” – end of quotes –
    Well, who knows. And one might prefer US-longer range missiles to some kerosene-fueled Abrams along a main force of all-diesel Leopards and T’s.

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