Last week’s decision by Berlin and Washington to send high-end tanks to Ukraine was widely remarked upon as a ‘game-changer’ in their fight against Russia – but not for the reasons you’d expect.
Germany’s Leopard-2 tanks, in tandem with the US’ M1 Abrams and the UK’s Challenger-2s, are expected to change the shape of the war.
They signal a bullish determination on the West’s behalf to force Russia out of Ukraine and bring about a definitive end to the conflict.
But despite providing Ukraine with a considerable battlefield advantage, the true significance of the move lies not in the tanks themselves, but the way they signal a shift in the Western coalition’s balance of power and the way they plan on approaching the next stage of the conflict.
Throughout much of 2022, the overarching sentiment from the US and most major European powers was that while Russia’s invasion must be opposed, the possibility of negotiations with Putin should not be taken off the table.
The Kremlin has since taken full advantage of these concessions by tabling a number of phoney ‘peace talks’ throughout the year.
They have been used to undermine Ukraine and force them to accept a settlement – something Zelensky has fiercely resisted.
‘The biggest danger to Ukrainians isn’t an offensive, it’s a stalemate,’ said Taras Kuzio, Professor of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla in Ukraine.
Speaking exclusively to Metro.co.uk, he said: ‘On literally every point, Russia has failed.
‘The Russian army is weak on logistics, and lacks both the technology and the officer corps to mount any sort of meaningful offensive.
‘The only advantage Putin has which he’s willing to use is to keep throwing bodies into the frontline using these World War 1-style human waves, and hope it will overwhelm the Ukrainians enough to lead to a stalemate.’
This is bad for Zelensky, he explains, because the longer Russia is able to hold out and drain Nato’s resources while denying Ukraine any significant gains.
It is likely that Western support will eventually dry up and force them to make a deal with Putin, Mr Kuzio explained.
But while Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Schulz have for months been hesitant to provide Kyiv with the firepower it needs to make a significant breakthrough in fear of further escalation, the feeling has not been mutual throughout the rest of the continent.
Behind the scenes, European states most directly vulnerable to Russian aggression – in Scandinavia, the Baltic region, and Central and Eastern Europe – have been growing increasingly frustrated with Washington and Berlin.
The longer the war drags on, the more Russia has revealed itself to be both genocidal and expansionist, and for countries in the former Soviet bloc the prospect of Russian victory in Ukraine is not just a theoretical concern but an existential threat, academics say.
Unlike the so-called ‘great’ powers these countries do not have the benefit of complacency, and it is understood implicitly in these circles that the only way to secure their long-term future is not just to drive Russia out of Ukraine, but to defeat them outright.
This sentiment has been echoed by several heads of state, but particularly Finnish PM Sanna Marin, who told reporters last year that Ukraine ‘had’ to win the war.
‘We don’t know when the war will end, but we have to make sure that the Ukrainians will win. I don’t think there’s any other choice. If Russia would win the war, then we would only see decades of this kind of behaviour ahead of us,’ Marin said.
‘I think other countries are looking very closely at what is happening now in Ukraine.
‘And if Russia would win, then it would send a message that you can invade another country, you can attack another country and you can gain from that,’ she added.
In this regard, the U-turn from Germany and the US regarding tanks- and the anger it has caused in Moscow- is better understood as a sign that the ‘smaller’ countries now prepared to take the lead in the conflict and force the rest of Nato to provide Ukraine with enough high-end weapons to break the deadlock and bring about a definitive end to the war.
British-Ukrainian author and journalist Stefan Jajecznyk-Kelman told Metro.co.uk: ‘Even though Germany has been supplying Ukraine with lots of gear throughout the past year, it had some pretty clear lines in terms of the level of weaponry it was prepared to give Ukraine which they weren’t willing to cross.’
‘That’s why there’s been all this anger in Moscow about the Leopard tanks, because I think they still felt that maybe Germany was in their pocket a little bit and this has kind of gone against that.’
The Kremlin has attempted to respond to the tank shipments with more nuclear threats and sabre-rattling, but as Jajecznyk-Kelman explains, outside of further mobilisation and terror bombing campaigns in Ukraine, there appears to be little they can do to target Nato members directly.
So what exactly can Russia do to respond?
‘They can carry on meddling in domestic politics and using diplomacy to wage the same sort of propaganda war they’ve been doing for the past few years,’ says Jajecznyk-Kelman.
‘They can also use their veto power as part of the UN security council, and god knows what Russian diplomats are up to in various parts of the world.
‘Politically, there are a lot of things Russia is and carries on doing.’
According to Kuzio, the next major front in Russia’s hybrid war against the west is likely to be the next set of US presidential elections, which he is confident Moscow will attempt to interfere with.
‘I think the biggest potential danger for Ukraine is the 2024 election in the US. Because if the Trumpites win the presidency, they’ll start reducing military support to Ukraine,’ he said.
‘In 2016 the Russians backed Trump, and of course they’re going to try and back him again because they hate Biden.
‘But remember that now it won’t be something new to the Americans. The Americans will now be watching out for any Russian interference, and in 2016 they weren’t.’
He added: ‘What Putin is hoping for, is that Western governments will fracture and that unity will fracture, but I think they’re wrong about that.’
Yet despite the Kremlin leader’s repeated attempts to meddle in the affairs of Western governments, his interference has only made them stronger – the academics said.
Instead, what we are witnessing is the emergence of a new force in European politics, united by a common enemy and an existential threat.
Boasting some of the continent’s fastest-growing economies and its best-equipped militaries, they are no longer content with putting their continued existence in the hands of Washington or Berlin and will ensure that regardless of the eventual outcome of the war in Ukraine, it will be decided on their terms.
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