Can Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks put Ukraine on the front foot against Russia?

Germany’s decision to provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks has been eagerly welcomed and spawned a new optimism for the success of Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion.

After weeks of hesitation, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has announced that his government would provide Ukraine with 14 Leopard 2 battle tanks and approve requests by other European countries — who had previously imported the German-made tanks by their thousands — to do the same.

Finland and Poland have both sought Berlin’s approval to send a supply of their Leopard 2s. Spain and the Netherlands said they were considering it, and Norway was reported to be discussing it.

Britain has offered a company of 14 of its comparable Challenger 2s and France is considering sending its Leclercs.

Until now, Ukraine has relied primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tank variants.

While Ukraine’s supporters have previously supplied tanks, they were Soviet models in the stockpiles of countries that once were in Moscow’s sphere of influence but are now aligned with the West.

German leader stands beside three soldiers in front of Leopard 2 tank.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that his government would supply Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and approve requests for other countries to do the same.(AP Photo: dpa/Moritz Frankenberg)

Benjamin Tallis — a senior research fellow at the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe — says the new equipment could lend hope for a new day in Ukraine’s efforts against Russia.

“For Ukraine, this is a decision of massive significance,” Dr. Tallis told the ABC.

“It takes them a considerable step closer to the kind of capabilities they need to win.

“And by winning, I mean getting Russia out of their territory and restoring their control over their entire territory, to their 1991 borders.”

Leopards offer survivability unmatched by Russian tanks

The Leopard 2 was originally designed in the 1970s for the West German army in response to Soviet threats during the Cold War.

It carries a reputation as one of the best battle tanks in the world and boasts a number of features that put it at an advantage over the Soviet-era tanks being used by Russian forces.

“It combines manoeuvrability with a high degree of protection and a powerful, powerful machine gun,” Dr. Tallis said.

A Leopard 2 tank is pictured during a demonstration event.
As Germany is the manufacturer and owner of the Leopard 2 tanks, countries such as Poland and Finland that are in possession of some must seek permission to lend them to Ukraine’s defense efforts.(AP Photo: Michael Sohn/File)

The tanks are designed and built to move quickly, with a top speed of around 70 kilometers per hour. They are fueled by a diesel engine, which is relatively accessible fuel to Ukraine, unlike the jet fuel that powers the M1 Abram tanks the US has pledged.

According to its German manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, the Leopard 2s also feature modern thermal imaging, which allows them to be operated in the dark of night, plus magnified optics with a laser rangefinder to track distant targets.

Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of the Leopard 2 tanks, however, is the added protection for the crew inside.

Many images that have circulated of battle frontlines, now long passed, show the burnt shells of tanks, the turrets of which lie to the side, dismembered from the hull, evidence of lethal “jack-in-the-box” explosions.

The rusted turret of a tank lies on a potholed road next to the hull.
Ukrainian forces took advantage of the “jack-in-the-box” flaw in this Russian tank, evidenced by the severed turret.(Reuters: Vladyslav Musiienko)

In some Soviet-era tanks, such as the T-72s being used by the Russians, ammunition is stored inside the tank beneath the crew, which, when the outer shell is ruptured by enemy forces, can trigger a chain of detonations and explode in a blast so powerful that the turret is blown off the body of the tank.

The Leopard 2s carry ammunition behind the crew, heavily partitioned and protected to avoid such devastation.

Their ammunition is standardized NATO 120mm, which would grant Ukraine access to a larger pool of suppliers than its current tanks, which require 125mm.

Pro-Russian soldiers sit atop a tank with the Russian flag flying.
Tanks in use by Russia’s forces are dated and possess some flaws in safety.(Reuters: Alexander Ermochenko)

Other, all-around protection offers defense from threats including improvised explosive devices, mines or anti-tank fire.

“It gives its crew a degree of survivability that the Russian tanks can’t even come close to,” Dr. Tallis said.

“It can survive in the firing zone and, thus, provide fire support to infantry moving up with it. It can suppress the enemy’s firing positions and give the chance to actually move troops forward.”

“Tank coalition” does not necessarily draw NATO into conflict

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Mr. Scholz by phone for the supply of the tanks and said he was “sincerely grateful to the Chancellor and all our friends in Germany”.

The move lifts one of the last taboos in Western support: providing weapons that have a mainly offensive rather than a defensive purpose.

“So the tank coalition is formed. Everyone who doubted this could ever happen sees now: for Ukraine and partners impossible is nothing,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

“I call on all new partners that have Leopard 2 tanks in service to join the coalition and provide as many of them as possible.”

The legacy of a Cold War era policy, Ostpolitik, has colored the German involvement in Ukraine’s defense.

That policy, championed in the early 1970s, was one of engagement with the then-Soviet Union through trade and diplomatic dialogue.

Shows of support for Ukraine — and, therefore, in Russia’s eyes, hostility towards Russia — in the present day risks being interpreted as a violation of the relationship between the two.

The Russian embassy in Berlin said Mr. Scholz’s decision would escalate the 11-month conflict in Ukraine, which Moscow casts, increasingly, as a dangerous face-off between Russia and the US-led alliance.

“This extremely dangerous decision takes the conflict to a new level of confrontation,” Ambassador Sergei Nechayev said.

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