This has not been the winter Vladimir Putin wished for. The Russian president expected temperatures to plummet, and with them Ukrainian resolve as well as Western resilience. None of this has happened.
France’s recent decision to deliver tank-killing armored combat vehicles to Ukraine softened reservations among allies about sending heavier, Western-made equipment for fears that such a move would represent escalation against Russia.
The day after the French announcement, the U.S. committed 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles as part of a further tranche of military support worth $3 billion. Germany finally agreed to deliver Marder armored vehicles and Patriot anti-missile systems. The United Kingdom and the Netherlands are among many countries that may follow suit.
Polish President Andrzej Duda has expressed his readiness to cross yet another threshold, that of main battle tanks, by offering to deliver Leopard 2 as part of a larger European coalition. He thus adds pressure on Chancellor Olaf Scholz since the German-made tanks require Berlin’s approval to be sent anywhere.
The weapons would be a big boost for Ukraine’s military, but Germany since the beginning of the war has constantly refused to create precedents in military support, relenting only when under pressure. The current level of pressure might not yet be untenable, but it is very high and might deepen cracks in the country’s governing coalition.
These new deliveries are pivotal for several reasons.
For one, they meet Ukrainian demands and needs to fight off Russian forces. At this stage, Ukraine’s most critical needs rest on two types of capabilities: air defense systems for shooting down missiles and drones, and armored combat vehicles for breaking through enemy lines and liberate territories. The latter might indeed prove more challenging as Russia has fallen back to more defensive positions, recruited fresh troops through mass conscription, returned to frenetic industrial production (40 to 50 heavy armored vehicles per month) and is crowding its best tanks, the T-90, in eastern Ukraine.
The messaging of Ukraine’s allies is also instrumental to defeat Moscow in the “battle of resolves” on which Putin bet for an easy win against an allegedly divided, fragmented West. This is yet another delusion for Putin, after expectations that Ukrainians would welcome Russians, that the country’s armed forces would be defeated within days, and that the passing of time would skew in Russia’s favor. It is also important for the morale of the Ukrainian forces, as they are fighting tough battles in the Donetsk region.
Finally, the European step-up bodes well for the future of Western support to Ukraine. It is encouraging for transatlantic relations, as the United States was rightfully expecting a more even burden sharing, especially at a moment where its new Congress might complicate Washington’s support. It is also positive for intra-European relations, as western continental Europe has taken a lot of flak from Eastern allies for not living up to the challenge. It shows that Europeans can take bold decisions, which could lead to further decisions on even heavier equipment without having to wait for the United States.
Yet this new wave does not come without risks. The reluctance to give Ukraine domestically designed heavy armored fighting vehicles was grounded in fears that this could be used by Russia as an excuse to escalate. In the present case, escalation could entail increased use of largely untapped tactical weapons and, ultimately, a potential nuclear option.
The reality is that qualitative upgrades in military aid to Ukraine are likely to change the tactical landscape for Russia but not its strategic equation.
There is at least one thing on which Russia and NATO agree: Neither want the alliance directly dragged into the war. The rules to prevent such an event were set early on and they still hold. They are that NATO nations shall not find themselves as co-belligerents in Ukraine and that Russia shall not attack NATO territory. It implies that the weapons delivered from abroad are in Ukrainian hands, and that their ammunitions do not fall on Russian territory. In this regard, the new military aid does not change the rules of the game as long as Ukrainians respect these rules of engagement.
In any event, it is up to the Ukrainians to say if they are willing to bear the risks of escalation rather than for the West to decide for them. And Ukrainian calls in this regard could not be more clear: Heavier, more sophisticated equipment is not a fear-enhancer, but a fear-eraser.
On the nuclear equation, the only escalation that the new deliveries might incur would be related to Moscow’s rhetoric. Russia is all too aware that nuclear threats have no impact on Ukrainian resolve. The main objective of Moscow’s nuclear saber-rattling is therefore to scare the West so that it restrains its support to Ukraine. This, too, seems to have failed.
This new wave of military support to Ukraine can be a watershed moment. It might have the ability to decisively reverse the tide, if it is swiftly implemented, sustained, and ideally enhanced.
Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow at the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. A career diplomat with the French Foreign Service, he most recently served as deputy head of the Strategic Affairs Division at the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs.