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Ukrainians die as America and Germany spar over who should go first in providing tanks

The Hill logo The Hill 1/24/2023 Joseph Bosco, Opinion Contributor
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In his annual speech in 2005, Vladimir Putin declared that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” That was the liberation of dozens of countries that for three-quarters of a century had endured serfdom, persecution, and even liquidation under the yoke of Soviet communism.

Putin’s worldview saw the plight of those populations differently: “As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory.” Those were the tens of millions who now enjoyed the blessings of human freedom.

Had Adolf Hitler not chosen suicide to avoid trial and accountability for his massive crimes, no doubt he would have described the defeat of Nazi Germany, from his perspective, as the century’s greatest geopolitical disaster — so many Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, mentally challenged, Gypsies, communists, and liberals yet to be eliminated; so many other countries yet to be conquered. 

The civilized world does not share the perspective of Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, or their contemporary emulators in aggression and criminality, Putin and China’s Xi Jinping.

Yet, because Russia and China possess nuclear weapons, the ultimate destroyers of humanity, the threat of which they wield to enforce their demands — and/or because there are economic benefits to giving in or looking the other way, the West has tended to tread lightly in opposing their outrages.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is its latest challenge to the international order and the West is finally confronting it. But NATO must stop its internal trifling, haggling and fretting and help defeat Putin’s war against Ukraine and the West.

In 2008, as Putin was on the verge of implementing his vision of reconstituting the Soviet Empire, NATO, at the urging of Washington, promised that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO.” But within months, Russia had invaded Georgia and the West did nothing to reverse Putin’s aggression.  

In 2014, Russia took the next step in following Putin’s geostrategic plan by invading Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Again, the West acquiesced. That year, Putin also sent forces to Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, an open defiance of Washington’s declaration that Assad should be deposed for using chemical weapons against his people and for other atrocities.  Putin paid no price for Russia’s aggressive return to the Middle East.

By 2022, Putin was ready to execute his plan to subjugate all of Ukraine, but the West was not yet prepared or disposed to stop him. Western experts simply wrote off Ukraine and were willing to consign the entire nation to the same fate of submission to Russian domination as parts of Georgia, eastern Ukraine, and Crimea.

But, contrary to international expectations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the heroic Ukrainian people, using old Soviet arms and a modest supply of Western weapons, have made their solitary stand against Russia’s aggression. Their remarkable resistance has both shamed and energized the United States and other NATO nations to step up and begin meeting their collective security and moral responsibilities to the international order.

Washington and other European capitals commenced a flow of weapons, munitions and military vehicles that have helped Ukraine hold its own and even mount successful counteroffensives to regain significant portions of Russian-held territory.

But the delivery of weapons has been halting and late, and their potency consistently less than the Ukrainians have needed to withstand the assault by far larger Russian forces — Putin seemingly has an inexhaustible supply of forced conscripts, prison inmates and ethnic minorities to expend as cannon fodder. Nor has Ukraine been provided the kinds of weapons that can impede Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure that subject the population to suffering, privation and death during the harsh Slavic winter.

Most NATO members have been generous and timely in sending urgently-needed weapons to Kyiv. But some have been dilatory, even resistant, in responding to all of Ukraine’s urgent needs.  Two of the wealthiest and most militarily powerful nations — the United States and Germany — while providing impressively large amounts of military aid, have been reluctant to send the most effective weapons Kyiv has desperately requested, or even to allow other nations to send them. 

Washington was the first to make an issue of such third-party transfers after it refused to send its own aircraft to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine. When Poland offered to furnish Ukraine with old Soviet MiGs it could use to enforce its own no-fly zone, Washington vetoed that idea, too.

In recent months, Ukraine has sought heavy battle tanks to prepare for a new counteroffensive and/or to preempt or blunt an expected new Russian offensive. It specifically requested the U.S. M1 Abrams tanks. Washington declined on the ground that the tanks are too sophisticated for the Ukrainians to handle, even though it has provided them to several other countries, including Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Iraq — some not as militarily experienced or proficient as Ukraine.

Kyiv also asked Germany to provide some of its Leopard tanks, considered the best in Europe, but Berlin declined the request, linking its decision to Washington’s withholding of Abrams tanks. More than 2,000 Leopards are held by the armies of other European countries, but none can be sent to Ukraine without Berlin’s consent because of end-user export controls. After last week’s NATO meeting on weapons transfers failed to produce a breakthrough on the tanks issue, this week, Germany partially relented. Without formally approving Poland’s transfer of Leopards to Ukraine, Germany said it would “not object.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was asked after the NATO meeting whether Germany’s refusal to provide the tanks despite U.S. and other members’ appeals means it is an unreliable ally.  Austin refused to criticize Germany, pointing to the large amounts of aid it has provided.

Still, Berlin’s refusal to approve a transfer of Leopard tanks unless Washington provides the Abrams is somewhat mystifying. The rationale cannot be that the U.S. has been parsimonious in the value of the military aid it has provided Ukraine — over $27 billion in the past year, more than all the rest of NATO members combined.

It is more likely the case that the introduction of these heavy weapons was widely considered — especially by Russia — as an escalation of Western involvement in the war on Ukraine’s side.  Neither Washington nor Berlin has wished to be the party responsible for escalation, even though Putin has consistently increased his aggression even when the West holds back. Preemptive restraint has only whetted Putin’s appetite.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He served in the Pentagon when Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia and was involved in Department of Defense discussions about the U.S. response. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.

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