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At last, Ukraine gets Western tanks

At last, Ukraine gets Western tanks

by host

PARIS — Major Western powers have finally decided to send armored vehicles to Ukraine, a move Kyiv’s leadership had long asked for and which it hopes will provide a major boost as it battles Vladimir Putin’s troops.

It started on Wednesday when Emmanuel Macron announced he was sending “light tanks” — AMX-10 RC armored fighting vehicles — to Ukraine. Macron decided to “amplify help” in response to “needs expressed by Ukraine,” the French presidency said.

The French decision was “the first time a Western-designed tank will be delivered to Ukraine. Symbolically, it’s important,” said François Heisbourg, senior adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

That put pressure on other nations to follow suit. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday thanked France for the AMX-10s, and urged other allies to provide tanks and other heavy weapons.

“There is no rational reason why Ukraine has not yet been supplied with Western tanks,” he said.

Hours later, Germany and the U.S. announced their own moves.

AMX-10 RC armored cars stand next to the Arc de Triomphe prior to the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on July 14, 2021 | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Germany will provide its Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicle, it said in a joint statement with the U.S., which will be sending Ukraine the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

None of these are the kind of modern fighting machines that Ukraine really wants, such as France’s state-of-the-art Leclerc, Germany’s Leopard or the U.S. Army’s M1 Abrams — which are more mobile, accurate and have longer range compared with the old Soviet tanks — but the moves signal that tank deliveries are no longer off-limits.

Berlin will also join the U.S. in donating a U.S.-made Patriot air defense battery, bringing Kyiv’s number of Patriots to two after the White House announced the move last month, according to Thursday’s statement.

While the U.K. has yet to make a similar commitment, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said after a meeting with his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock: “We have been providing the kind of military equipment that is able to put a decisive … punch against Russian targets at range.

“We will continue to speak with the Ukrainians about what they need for the next phase of their self-defense and we will continue working with our international partners about ensuring that we provide that. Tanks might well be part of that. Where they come from, which allies provide them, is something that of course we are working on in coordination with each other.”

Built for the battlefield

Though the frontline has not moved much in recent weeks, the focus in European capitals is turning to what happens next.

For France that’s “a possible Russian offensive in the spring,” said an adviser to French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu, echoing NATO warnings in December.

The AMX-10 RC has been used as a reconnaissance vehicle and tank killer by French forces in the past — including during Operation Barkhane in Africa, which officially ended in November last year — and its maneuverability and speed would allow Ukraine to hit hard and fast in small engagements. Its relatively light armor is a drawback against heavy Russian guns, however.

The vehicle could be deployed ahead of a column of main battle tanks during operations, according to retired General Jérôme Pellistrandi, director of the magazine National Defence Review.

“It’s a vehicle that was designed in the 70s and 80s to track the advance of Soviet armed land forces. The paradox is that it will be used today for the purpose it was built for … because Russians have shown their doctrine hasn’t shifted much since the Soviet times,” said Pellistrandi.

According to Heisbourg, the decision to send such military equipment lifts another Western taboo after the delivery of sophisticated air defense systems to Ukraine in recent months.

“A tank is built to go forward, particularly this model. It’s an armored reconnaissance vehicle and it’s a contribution destined to help Ukraine recover occupied territories,” he said.

A French armored reconnaissance tank AMX 10 RC (front) and a German Boxer armored personnel carriers take position during the German-French armed forces exercise in Weisswasser, Germany | Joern Haufe/Getty Images

While no figures for deliveries from France have been announced, Pellistrandi estimated that there are approximately 30 AMX-10 RC available immediately to be sent to Ukraine because they are being replaced by a more recent generation of armored vehicles.

There are, however, doubts as to how much impact these can have on the battlefield.

“It can help, but in terms of numbers, it’s not much given that there are hundreds of tanks and thousands of armored vehicles in Ukraine. The Ukrainians will use them well, but they don’t fire as far as Russian tanks,” said Michel Goya, a retired colonel and defense consultant.

What’s next

The decision to send “light tanks” does however mark a shift in the French outlook after Macron announced that France would “help Ukraine until victory” during his New Year’s address.

The upcoming deliveries may be just the beginning. Ukrainians are still asking France to send Leclerc tanks to Ukraine, which are heavier, more powerful and better protected than the AMX-10s. Asked whether France planned to send such equipment, a government adviser said the request was being examined and the decision depended on whether France can spare the Leclerc tanks as well as whether Ukrainians can be trained to use them in a timely fashion.

But according to Heisbourg, it would make more sense for Ukrainians to train on German Leopard 1 and 2 tanks, which are still being produced and used in many different European countries, rather than Leclerc tanks, which would be difficult to maintain in Ukraine.

“The Ukrainians really want Leopards,” said Heisbourg.

Wilhelmine Preussen, Nicholas Vinocur, Jack Blanchard, Lara Seligman and Paul McLeary contributed to reporting.

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