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Britain: Europe’s challenger power on Ukraine

His Majesty’s (HM) Government’s decision to equip Ukraine’s armed forces with Challenger 2 tanks demonstrates that the United Kingdom (UK) continues to provide European leadership in extending the boundaries of the forms of support provided to counter Russia’s war of aggression. The commitment to be the first country to supply modern main battle tanks was a politically conspicuous decision which should be matched by other European states. It was accompanied by British diplomatic messaging – in public – that it was an act to provide Ukraine with the means to liberate lost territories so as to bring the war to a speedier conclusion, as well as a clear-cut strategy to oppose Russia’s apparent preference for a prolonged war of attrition.

HM Government’s actions have had the effect of – again – exposing Germany’s continuing strategic unreliability on Ukraine. The unwillingness of Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of Germany, to countenance the supply of German-built Leopard 2 tanks from Germany to Ukraine is one thing. But to prevent allies such as Finland and Poland – European countries which have procured Leopard 2 for their own national defence – from supplying them to the Ukrainians, is quite another. Scholz appears to have placed a bar on the supply of Leopard 2 tanks unless the United States (US) sends Abrams tanks to Ukraine, despite the fact that their operation and logistical chain is far more complex. The German Government, in allowing extended speculation to prevail on the depth of its commitment to Ukraine, only provides succour to Russia. 

The absence of any German movement to supply Leopard 2 tanks at the Ukraine Defence Contact Group meeting at Ramstein air base in Germany on 20th January 2023 only widens the policy gap between Germany and key allies on how to address Russia’s war of aggression. 

In maintaining its (non-supply) position on Leopard 2 tanks, Germany is having a significant impact on Ukraine’s war plans and is making it harder for them to liberate territories seized by the Kremlin. In operation with 15 European armed forces, the Leopard 2 is the most numerous modern tank variant produced in Europe. Even HM Government’s decision to supply Ukraine with a squadron of Challenger 2 main battle tanks could not break the German veto on the supply of Leopard 2 – at least for the moment. 

Scholz’s failure sharpens the divide between European countries which are on the front foot in their support for Ukraine – the challengers of the boundaries of the scope of existing support – and those states which are laggards. The UK is now firmly the vanguard of the ‘challenger’ states. The numbers of British tanks to be supplied might not be numerically large but, alongside the commitments to supply AS-90 self-propelled heavy artillery, an additional 600 Brimstone missiles, and around 200 armoured vehicles, does present an important upsurge in Britain’s commitment to Ukraine’s capacity to defend itself. 

HM Government’s continued commitment to Ukraine aside, the ‘Tallinn Pledge’ made alongside the ‘challenger’ partners of Estonia, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, and the representatives of Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, and Slovakia, on 19th January, the day before the Ramstein meeting, may turn out to be even more important. For all the French and German talk of the need for European strategic autonomy, the UK has led in creating a group of like-minded states to uphold the defence of Europe. These nations have committed to help Ukraine liberate its territory from Russian occupation by ensuring that the ‘surge of global military support is as strategic and coordinated as possible.’ This was combined with a list of pledges of equipment to realise the commitment ‘to collectively pursuing delivery of an unprecedented set of donations including main battle tanks, heavy artillery, air defence, ammunition, and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine’s defence.’ 

The UK’s decision to supply Challenger 2 tanks has contributed to a renewed impetus in the level of military and diplomatic support for Ukraine.

The absence of either France or Germany from the Tallinn Pledge starkly signals their different preoccupations on how to address Russia’s war against Ukraine. Consequently, Germany’s position on the provision of Leopard 2 tanks already places it at odds with key European allies. It also has other implications for Germany. In the short term it directly constrains Ukraine’s ability to defend itself and liberate Russian-seized territories with the capabilities that it needs. It also makes Germany a less than constructive ally for European states in the face of what many consider to be an existential threat. In the long term it acts as a spur for creating arrangements for military security, including defence equipment procurement, which exclude states that have failed a litmus test of not barring the movement of equipment when allies consider it to be in their vital national interest. 

To be clear, the Leopard 2 fiasco demonstrates that Germany may be an ally but it is also a country that consumes precious diplomatic bandwidth when the greatest energy and effort should be given to the support of Ukraine. The pattern of Germany’s behaviour throughout the war has attained a degree of predictability. Prevarication gives way to eventual support but after a sustained and damaging political cost. 

HM Government’s provision of main battle tanks and the Tallinn Pledge also act as inflection points in the support for Ukraine. It is the beginning of a sustained systematic external programme to build and maintain Ukraine’s ability to conduct armoured warfare to expel Russia’s occupying army. It might now be appropriate to set a level of ambition for that support by committing to equip and maintain a European-sponsored Ukrainian armoured division. Collectively, European states possess the necessary equipment, the training capacity, and the logistics, to supply this to Ukraine’s armed forces. It would, however, be considerably complicated without the assistance of Germany.  

The UK’s decision to supply Challenger 2 tanks has contributed to a renewed impetus in the level of military and diplomatic support for Ukraine. Britain, alongside its closest European allies on Ukraine, has set out a clear position on the level of ambition which other European states should measure themselves against.

Prof. Richard G. Whitman is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. James Rogers is Co-founder and Director of Research at the Council on Geostrategy.

Embedded image credit: PO(Phot) Terry Seward/Ministry of Defence (CC BY-SA 2.0 cropped)

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