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.

Brief Update 21 January, 2023: Still No German Decision On Leopard 2s For Ukraine

Another NFL playoff weekend here in the United States. My NY Giants will kickoff at 8 PM so I will make this entry short and try to catch up on Monday.

Germany remains under considerable pressure concerning the potential delivery of Leopard 2 MBTs to Ukraine. The Kiev government is at the point of almost publicly criticizing Germany for dragging its feet on reaching a decision. Berlin’s NATO allies are equally as impatient, but Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his government appear to be in no hurry on reaching a decision. The Germans are greatly worried about escalating the war by handing over a large number of first-rate main battle tanks to the Ukrainians. This fear is not unfounded. A future Ukrainian offensive spearheaded by forces equipped with modern German, US and British weapon systems could provoke Russia to widen the war and draw in NATO fully. Whereas Washington and Paris have been handing over billions of dollars and endless caches of weaponry since the start of the war, Berlin has developed a habit of prudently weighing the pros and cons before every weapon-related decision.

The Germans are hoping not to go it alone either. A US commitment including M-1 Abrams battle tanks would easily sway the Germans to contribute Leopard battle tanks, as the two tanks are deemed to be almost equal in their capabilities. Unfortunately, the US doesn’t seem ready to include M-1s in any future military aid packages to Ukraine for a number of reasons ranging from the amount of time it will take Ukrainian crews to be trained on M-1s to the chances of an Abrams falling into enemy hands.

One way or another, the matter is coming to a head and Germany looks ready to make a final decision next week. I hope everyone has an enjoyable weekend and we’ll jump back into things on Monday. Go Giants! 😊

China and Russia To Join South Africa For Naval Exercises In February

The South African government today confirmed that joint naval exercises will take place off the country’s east coast next month involving South African, Russian, and Chinese naval units. The exercises will take place off of the South African ports of Durban and Richards Bay and are scheduled to take place from 17-26 February, 2023. The South African National Defense Force claims the war games are expected to “strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China.”

The timing of the exercise is questionable in the eyes of some opposition politicians in Pretoria. With Russia involved an increasingly bloody and protracted war in Ukraine, this doesn’t appear to be the proper time to welcome Russian warships to South Africa. In fact, despite the majority of South Africans opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the national government has been firmly in Moscow’s corner for the duration of the conflict. South Africa did not condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine, to the frustration of its Western allies.

For China and Russia, the exercises with South African forces will be mostly of symbolic value. Highlighting the growing reach and influence of a still fledgling power bloc anchored by Beijing and Moscow. The appearance of Chinese warships in the western reaches of the Indian Ocean certainly sends a message to China’s competitors about the reach and capabilities of the PLAN though. South Africa, on the other hand, stands to gain little as a nation-state. But for its embattled president Cyril Ramaphosa, the exercises offer an opportunity to shift attention away from his recent political difficulties and the country’s continuing economic misfortunes.

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. 😊