"Tanks but no tanks" and "Free the Leopards" were the clever headlines earlier this week about Ukraine.
They referred to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's frustrating refusal to send badly needed Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine to help Kyiv break the current military stalemate with Russia. Scholz kept insisting the U.S. must first send M1 Abrams tanks, even though the German tanks are far more suitable for the Ukrainian battlefield and can be delivered more quickly.
However, the Leopards were finally freed on Wednesday — coincidentally the birthday of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — thanks to a sudden but smart political decision by President Joe Biden.
Reversing past U.S. reluctance to send the M1s, Biden announced Wednesday that 31 of these most sophisticated U.S. tanks will be delivered to Ukraine much later this year. His snap policy turnaround called Scholz's bluff. Germany will now deliver 14 Leopards and green-light other European allies to send some of the German tanks they have in their arsenals, with a goal of delivering at least 70 fairly soon to Kyiv.
Yet Biden's tank decision has wider, positive implications for the broad allied effort to help Ukraine in its struggle. It signals the president has finally concluded that NATO allies must do more than help Ukraine defend against Russian aggressors. They must enable Kyiv to drive the invaders out of its land.
For those concerned that the M1 decision will "expand" the war, here are six reasons why Biden's decision was the right one — and why the White House must do what it takes to get Kyiv whatever weapons it needs, in order to roll the Russians back from Ukraine this year.
An unforgiving calendar
Time is not on Ukraine's side, and a stalemate is untenable. While Putin's military cannot defeat and occupy all of Ukraine, it can destroy the country's cities and wreck the economy if the conflict drags on indefinitely. Despite the impact of the war on Russia's future economy, Putin is willing to throw newly mobilized men into a meat grinder, and import drones and missiles from Iran and North Korea for a spring or summer offensive. Sufficient weapons, soonest, would enable Kyiv to hit the Russians hard before such an offensive — and before a new GOP House majority threatens to cut Ukraine aid.
The urgent need for tanks
Those heavy battlefield tanks are needed now, as we approach the first anniversary of the Russian invasion next month, so Ukraine can mount a successful counteroffensive against dug-in Russian positions in the east and south of the country. Scholz's dallying may mean the Leopards won't arrive by spring, and the projected numbers are still insufficient — Ukraine says it needs 300 — but 70 German tanks is a good start, and more may follow. If the nimble Ukrainians can break through Russian lines and cut off Russia's land bridge to Crimea, they will take a huge step toward defeating Putin's army.
This time, German tank drivers are the good guys
There is nothing wrong with German tanks rolling again into Ukraine. Yes, the German public is ambivalent, recalling uneasily how Nazi tanks rolled over Russia (then including Ukraine) during World War II. And Moscow's propagandists are promoting that image. But Russia is now playing the Nazi role with its genocidal effort to wipe out the Ukrainian state and slaughter its civilians. This time, German tanks are manned by the good guys.
Confirming NATO's unity
It was important for Biden to call Scholz's bluff and cement a stronger German role in supporting Ukraine. No doubt, Scholz's true concern was the ambivalence of elements of his Social Democratic Party who yearn to maintain their diplomatic ties, trade relationships, and gas deals with Russia. Those days are over. The German leader's dithering over the Leopards was creating the impression for Moscow that the NATO alliance could still be splintered over help to Ukraine. Biden was correct to haul Scholz back into the fold.
A few U.S. tanks are a small price to pay
It was worth promising M1 tanks to prod Scholz into action. True, the U.S. tank is much heavier than the Leopard, unsuited to Ukrainian roads and runs most often on hard-to-procure jet fuel rather than diesel. But the short-term objective here was to free the Leopards, since there are 2,000 of them in various European countries, meaning an allied coalition could send them fairly quickly to Ukraine. I second Delaware's Democratic U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, who told ABC's This Week on Sunday: "If it requires our sending some Abrams tanks to unlock getting the Leopard tanks from Germany, from Poland, from other allies, I would support that."
Biden's new clarity about the war's endgame
The president's willingness to deliver advanced U.S. tanks appears to indicate he's dropped his ambivalence about a Ukrainian victory, along with the false distinction between "offensive" and "defensive" weapons. As he correctly said Wednesday, Ukraine's battle is "not an offensive threat to Russia. If Russia returned to its territory, this war would be over today." Having signed off on tanks, now is the moment for the White House and NATO allies to send the other key weapons Ukraine still needs — the air defenses and long-range munitions that can make the difference between stalemate and victory. Freeing the Leopards should be a giant step toward ending Putin's war in 2023.