In the Shadow of Escalation

Germany’s reversal on its decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, and the Biden administration’s follow up announcement that the US will also ship a contingent of M-1 Abrams tanks has raised eyebrows and caused concern across the globe. NATO sending armor to the Ukraine has been considered a red line since the start of the war in Ukraine almost a year ago. The fear was that such a move is almost certain to bring with it a substantial risk of escalation. That concern proved to be a  main reason Berlin was initially reluctant to make its Leopard 2 tanks available to Kiev.  But in the face of allied pressure and a changing dynamic on the ground in Ukraine, Germany decided providing Leopard 2s was worth the perceived risk. Great Britain drew the same conclusion a few days earlier and the United States has followed suit. The events going on over the last thirty-six hours make it clear NATO’s strategy for Ukraine is shifting to an ‘escalate to deescalate’ track. The problem with this is that Russia appears to be doing much of the same.

With winter having transformed the fighting in Ukraine into a stalemate, Russia is digging in and making preparations for a spring offensive. Which means that between now and spring, Russia and NATO will be racing to make their respective arrangements. For NATO this means getting Ukrainian tank crews trained to proficiency and the new armor integrated into Ukrainian units in time to help blunt the coming Russian offensive. Russia, on the other hand, will be rushing to get its dispositions and resupply efforts complete in time to launch the offensive on its terms and seize the initiative.

Between now and spring, the conflict will enter the shadow of escalation. Essentially, this is a critical stage where perception and misperception of the opposing side’s intentions and strategic objectives will determine the next direction the war will take. As we’ve seen many times over the past eleven months, the behavior of Russia has not been as centralized, coordinated or planned as the West anticipated. The imposing of heavy economic sanctions failed to deter Putin from pressing forward with the invasion. Even larger batches of Western military and economic aid earmarked for Kiev also did not convince him that war was a bad idea. Putin and Russia have not responded as anticipated. The West misperceived Putin and the effect its actions would have.

In turn, Putin’s misperceptions of the West, predominantly of NATO and the United States, contributed greatly to the less-than-attractive position the Russians are presently in. The overall unity NATO has demonstrated in the face of Soviet aggression has transcended all pre-war predictions. Ukraine’s performance on the battlefield helped to keep the alliance from writing off Kiev as a lost cause. Putin and Russian military leaders also grossly underestimated how well the military would fight, a near fatal misperception of Russian power and one which continues to haunt Russia on a regular basis.

In the shadow of escalation phase watch for the West and Russia to try and reassess their perceptions of the other’s intentions and behavior. For Russia, NATO’s commitment to send armor to Ukraine has served to fulfill Putin’s argument that NATO is an active combatant in the war. This could give him some relief on the domestic front with a resurgence of popular support, rendering the burgeoning anti-Putin faction in the Russian government stillborn. The West, in turn, needs to prioritize determining Putin’s most probable courses of action in the event the offensive comes up short of its objectives. More to the point, how might Putin respond if the newly arrived armor from Germany, the United States and Great Britain plays a key role in blunting his spring offensive?

Germany Reverses Its Position On Sending Leopard 2 MBTs To Ukraine

The Germans caved to pressure from Kiev and its erstwhile NATO allies and has reversed its decision on sending Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine. Later today the United States is expected to announce it will be sending M-1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. Chancellor Olaf Scholz informed the Bundestag of the decision earlier today and took a moment in his remarks to praise Germany’s relations with the United States. At the time this seemed rather peculiar, however, following the recent news about the US decision to send tanks it makes perfect sense. There was obviously a deal struck between Washington and Berlin behind the scenes at some point yesterday.

Details are limited, such as the number of tanks Germany will provide and when they will be shipped. They won’t arrive in the near future though. It will take some time to get the tanks prepared for action (assuming they are coming out of storage) and have Ukrainian tank crews trained to proficiency. The same goes for the Abrams tanks the US intends to send over. Since the start of the war NATO members have ruled out sending MBTs to Ukraine. Now that the taboo has been broken, it is safe to wonder if there will be any tanks left in Europe by this time next year. 😊

Kiev is certainly happy. Zelenskiy has once again had his demands met by the West, which has been tossing weapons and money into the conflict at a brisker pace lately. Zelenskiy’s reply to the German decision is undoubtedly a heartfelt ‘tanks a lot!’

There is some historical precedent to Germany’s move as well. After all, this won’t be the first time in the past 100 years that Ukraine has seen German-made tanks rolling through its towns and farmland to meet and do battle with the Russians.

Ukraine Update 15 January, 2023: British Challenger 2 MBTs To Ukraine

Great Britain’s announcement over the weekend that it will authorize the shipment of a limited number of Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine is being celebrated by the government in Kiev. Volodymyr Zelenskiy realizes Britain will only be sending enough tanks to equip a squadron, which is a sub-unit of a battalion. But he is really hoping Britain’s move will motivate other NATO members with large numbers of modern tanks to do the same and send some east. So far, NATO has been reluctant to do just that, viewing such a move as escalatory. Specifically, Ukraine is looking for a large number of Leopard 2 MBTs, the German tank in service with a number of NATO nations. Although Berlin has been reluctant to send some of these tanks east, Poland and other NATO members who have them may be easier to convince. In fact, Poland said on Wednesday it intends to transfer some of its Leopards to Ukraine, but it needs German permission before doing so. It remains unclear if they will receive the green light from Berlin.

Brief Note: Short update on this Sunday. Here in the States it is NFL playoff football weekend. Apologies. 😊

US Military Warns Current Weapon Production Cannot Sustain Both Ukrainian AND US Needs

Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro has warned publicly that the US will not be able to continue providing weapon and material support for Ukraine unless weapons manufacturers increase production in the next six months. SecNav’s comments came in response to a reporter’s question about remarks made by Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Caudle had said the US could be forced to decide later this year whether to arm itself or Ukraine. Doing both might not be possible.

This was bound to happen sooner or later. In all likelihood the warnings have been on the radar of the White House and Pentagon for some time. Now the time is approaching when action must be taken. Del Toro stated the US is not to that point yet, but the supply chain will be stressed if the war in Ukraine lasts another six months. To be fair, the estimate should be more along the lines of 4 months in expectation of a possible major offensive by Russian forces in the spring.

The Pentagon has been pressuring defense contractors to increase production for some time now but the shortages continue and by recent accounts seem to be worsening. Let’s be fair. Keeping Ukraine supplied in wartime is a task that is causing problems and concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. A number of European nations have practically emptied their ammunition and weapons lockers and sent everything they could spare east. And then some. The flow of weapons and material to Ukraine has slowed, due in part at least to the reality that many European nations can’t afford to part with additional weapons, ammunition and other wartime materials.

Now US commanders and Pentagon officials are hinting that a similar situation could loom ahead for the US military. Not surprising in the least. But in the face of promises to assist Taiwan’s military buildup and the prospect of a clash with Chinese forces being accepted as possible, this is not the time for the US to contend with weapon delivery delays and such. At the end of the day, US national security trumps that of Ukraine.  

The Ukraine War In Early 2023

In the opinion of most experts, diplomats and talking heads across the globe, the Ukrainian War will come to a conclusion at some point in the next twelve months. On this point I am in agreement. However, it is fair to remember that a year ago around this time there was a divide in opinion about whether Vladimir Putin would order an invasion of Ukraine. Even more worthy of recollection is the rather somber fact that just about every single prediction put forward about the scope, shape and timeline of Russia’s invasion was thoroughly incorrect. My own included and misery, as they say, loves company. 😊

Here we are now in January, 2023 with the war continuing on down a path unforeseen twelve months ago. The question of ‘How is the war going to end?’ continues to crop up regularly in the first days of this new year. The collection of responses are every bit as varied and colorful as were the answers to the January, 2022 query of ‘will Russia invade?’ And in all likelihood, these responses will be nowhere near as accurate.

Barring a complete change of heart by Kiev and Moscow, the Ukraine War will be decided on the battlefield. The diplomatic avenue continues to be explored but with each side placing terms and conditions on negotiations that the other side views as beyond the bounds of possibility. Therefore, the war will be decided on the battlefield. With Ukrainian forces being better equipped and highly motivated, it is expected they will attempt to keep up pressure on Russian forces in Donbas and perhaps also in areas of southern Ukraine. Russian forces, on the other hand, appear to be using the winter pause to build up supplies and incorporate new troops in preparation for a spring offensive. Of the 300,000 Russian reservists mobilized in summer and fall of 2022, three quarters of them are in training for 2023. When they arrive at the front in great numbers more indications of a coming spring offensive will become visible.

For Ukraine, disruption needs to be centerpiece of its military strategy through the remainder of the winter months. Kiev has to buy time for additional arms and supplies to arrive from the West. The best way to create time and throw off the Russian timetable for spring is to keep up the pressure on the ground in Donbas.