Why the flip on tanks for Ukraine?

As John reported yesterday, after months of insisting that it would be a bad idea to send American M1 Abrams tanks to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Biden administration did a 180-degree flip and said that we’ll be sending dozens of them to be used against the Russians in Ukraine. The announcement came on the heels of Germany granting permission for Poland to send Leopard 2 tanks and promising to send 14 of their own as well. So now Zelensky’s forces will be swimming in more than fifty of the most advanced tanks in the world.

But why the change of heart? That’s a question that the AP asked yesterday, offering some answers that don’t exactly make the allied forces look like the most competent group of war planners available.

On Wednesday, that abruptly changed. Ukraine’s desperate pleas for tanks were answered with a sweeping, trans-Atlantic yes.

The dramatic reversal was the culmination of intense international pressure and diplomatic arm-twisting that played out over the last week. And it resulted in in a quick succession of announcements: The U.S. said it will send 31 of the 70-ton Abrams battle tanks to Ukraine, and Germany announced it will send 14 Leopard 2 tanks and allow other countries to do the same.

A look at the massive battle weapon, why it is important to Ukraine’s war with Russia, and what drove the Biden administration’s tank turnabout.

The first question to address involves the reasons the Biden administration previously gave for denying tanks to Ukraine and what, if anything, has changed since then. They told us (correctly) that the tanks were difficult and complicated to operate in muddy terrain such as will be found in eastern Ukraine. They also noted that there are no repair facilities capable of repairing and maintaining the M1 Abrams tanks or carrying spare parts in Ukraine or any neighboring European countries. And finally, they believed that the presence of American tanks would further inflame Vladimir Putin’s anger, leading him to once again lash out, potentially with nuclear weapons.

It doesn’t take a defense intelligence expert to realize that not one of those three factors has changed in the past week. The tanks will be no easier to handle in the mud. Repair facilities have not magically appeared where there were none before. And Putin was immediately enraged, declaring that if the American tanks show up and attack his forces, those tanks “will burn.”

Biden attempted to deflect Putin’s rage by saying, “There is no offensive threat to Russia” from the tanks. I’m sorry, but… what? Who wrote that line for him? Those tanks have a 120 mm main gun, armor-piercing capabilities, advanced targeting systems, and they come with a freaking jet engine. How do they pose “no offensive threat” to Russia’s troops and military hardware? And speaking of Putin, he upped the ante this morning.

Returning to the original question, if all of those reasons for not sending tanks are still valid, why the flip? The AP provides a depressing but stark assessment, saying the reversal was caused by “political realities and a diplomatic dance.” That’s a polite way to put it. Germany didn’t want to send the Leopard 2 tanks because they were concerned about invoking “Russia’s wrath.” We didn’t want to send ours for the reasons listed above. But other, more enthusiastic European countries were putting pressure on both Germany and the United States.

This is what I feared might happen when I previously wrote about the standoff over these tanks. At the time, I said that if other countries such as Britain (who is also sending tanks) or Germany caved in and sent theirs, it might “wind up giving Joe Biden the excuse to start delivering our best tanks to Zelensky, fearing that he might look like we’re not doing enough.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Germany blinked first and Joe Biden caved almost immediately thereafter, despite all of the advisors who said that this was probably going to be an expensive and unproductive move. As the AP pointed out, this was all political theater. And nobody was listening when this guy was asking the right question.

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