The choice of Germany and the US to supply Ukraine with tanks is a positive one, but the tanks that will arrive are only a few dozen, compared to the thousands of Russian tanks. They also leave many weaknesses of the Ukrainian army unresolved, such as holes in the air defence.
The decision taken by the US and Germany to supply tanks to Ukraine is positive because – once again – it dashes Putin’s hope of dividing the West and reducing its support for Kiev. However, the incoming tanks are only a few dozen against the thousands of Russian tanks; they carry a baggage of problems (maintenance, fuel, ammunition); they leave many other weaknesses of the Ukrainian army unresolved, such as the glaring holes in its air defence. Moreover, Berlin’s reticence continues to reveal an underlying delay: cultural as well as political.
Many Germans still believe the fable that the first Cold War 1947-1989 was won by cooperation with Moscow rather than by Ronald Reagan’s determination. Even the United States believed to such an extent that it lived in an era of peace that it now has an undersized, and often inefficient, defence industry. Italy too would need a healthy confrontation with the ‘reality principle’, instead of the tragicomic debates about Zelensky at the Sanremo festival.
On the green light for American Abrams tanks and German Leopard 2s, a famous quip comes to mind, attributed by some sources to Winston Churchill, the British premier who played a leading role in the resistance against Nazi-Fascism in the Second World War (an alternative version attributes it to an Israeli premier, Abba Eban). ‘You can be sure,’ Churchill is reported to have said, ‘that the Americans will always do the right thing, having tried all the others.’ In this case, the joke can be extended to NATO or the West. Since the beginning of this conflict, our support for Ukraine has proceeded with dropper drops, amid resistance and delays, and every decision comes after exhausting hesitation. A harsh judgement on the Leopard affair is given by The Economist, reminding us that Zelensky’s request for tanks – to be able to resist the huge Russian armoured columns – came on the seventh day of the invasion, i.e. eleven months ago. It was the right thing to do immediately, it took us almost a year to admit it.
The main justification for our hesitation – even on Joe Biden’s part – has always been not to provoke Putin, not to do anything to legitimise his narrative of a direct Russia-NATO confrontation. This is why Biden continues to force the Ukrainians to defend themselves with one arm tied behind their backs, for example by denying them adequate missiles to hit the launching bases from which Russian missiles originate.
But Putin has been using that NATO aggression narrative since 2007 and it is with that narrative that he has justified the aggression of a sovereign and independent nation since 2008 (Georgie) and 2014 (Crimea). Any form of Western aid to Ukraine, for Moscow propaganda is confirmation of the theorem. Tanks do not change anything, Putin has already accused NATO a hundred times of fighting Russia directly. For him, it is also a convenient alibi for Russian public opinion: to justify the reverses suffered by his armed forces, it is useful to claim that they are fighting against a much bigger enemy.
In reality, Putin knows the fundamental difference between supplying weapons and directly entering a conflict. In 1965-75, during the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union and Mao’s China provided the vast majority of weapons, training, and intelligence to the North Vietnamese communists. This is not to say that America was fighting against the USSR and China. If American propaganda had then used this argument to justify its own difficulties, it would certainly not have been taken seriously by the veterans of ‘pseudo-pacifism’ who are now contesting Zelensky in San Remo. The same ones who instead accept Putin’s propaganda when he describes Nato aid as direct participation in the war.
That help will arrive – few and late – with a load of problems. Ukrainian troops need to be trained in the use of tanks other than their own. These armoured vehicles need to be constantly supplied with fuel, spare parts, and especially ammunition. Here we touch a sore point. The production of ammunition mirrors the disarmament that has taken place in the West for decades. Including the US, as documented in a recent congressional report in Washington. At the end of World War II, the US had 85 munitions factories. Today there are only six left, often operating with machinery and plants that are over eighty years old. Although Russia is much poorer than the US, it has a ‘war economy’ where war production receives a huge portion of national resources. And it can avail itself of military supplies from other ‘war economies’ such as Iran and North Korea (the latter being in all likelihood also the clandestine channel through which China helps Putin).
America dismantled or downsized its military industry especially after the end of the first Cold War, convinced that it could finally enjoy the ‘peace dividends’. Nor should the internal inefficiencies within the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex be underestimated. Apart from a few sporadic cases of corruption (yes, that does not only exist in Kiev), the US generals have often fallen in love with their ‘cathedrals’, great works of war technology such as the very expensive aircraft carriers or the F-35 fighter-bombers, relegating to a minor role the new ultralight technologies such as drones, or banal and not at all glamorous productions such as munitions.
A recent virtual wargames exercise conducted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies showed that should China invade Taiwan, the US would run out of essential munitions to help the island defend itself in less than a week. China is investing five times more in its munitions capacity than the US. If in World War II it was the production capacity of its industry that was America’s decisive weapon, this advantage is now in danger of disappearing. The deindustrialisation that has affected the United States for at least three decades has not spared the defence sector: some of its production is dependent on materials and components made in China, just like mobile phones or electric cars. America retains – for now – a technological superiority, often entrusted to the private sector, and has seen it at work with the role of Starlink satellites (Elon Musk) or Microsoft in helping Ukraine. But since Russian aggression uses tactics and techniques that evoke the First and Second World Wars, software is not enough, it takes boots on the ground, tanks, ammunition.
Germany, and Europe, are a case apart when it comes to disarmament culture. Behind Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s reticence about the Leopard lies a kind of alternative view of history. Many Germans have constructed a comforting portrayal of the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the USSR. Much of the credit would be theirs: their policies of cooperation and trade that softened the communist bloc. The role of Ronald Reagan and his firmness, or Pope Wojtyla and his support for the Polish uprising, is conveniently obscured in this reconstruction. Much of the credit would instead go to social democratic leaders such as Willy Brandt, architect of Ostpolitik or ‘eastern policy’ (whose political career was cut short because his offices were swarming with Soviet spies). Gerhard Schroeder, also a former Social Democrat chancellor, was able to get himself hired by Putin as administrator of a Russian energy company in the name of ‘peace and brotherhood’ between peoples. The same Christian Democrat Angela Merkel supported to the last Nord Stream 2, the pipeline with which Putin wanted to perpetuate German-European dependence on Russian gas. The idea that Russia would become better off by trading with us anaesthetised any lucidity in the German ruling class. Scholz still struggles to get rid of it today, he does it slowly and to the point.