Russia says the delivery of NATO battle tanks to Ukraine is evidence of “direct and growing” US and European involvement in the war, with one analyst suggesting that countries supplying Ukraine could become potential targets.
The comments come after the United States and Germany said on Wednesday that they would arm Ukraine with dozens of heavy tanks in its fight against Russian forces.
“There are continuous statements from European capitals and Washington that sending various weapons systems to Ukraine, including tanks, in no way implies the involvement of these countries or the coalition in hostilities in Ukraine,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday.
We categorically disagree with this, and in Moscow everything that the coalition and the capitals you mentioned do is seen as direct participation in the conflict. We see this increasing.”
Kyiv seeks to obtain hundreds of modern tanks to give its forces the firepower to break through the Russian defensive lines and restore the occupied lands in southern and eastern Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia mainly rely on Soviet-era T-72 tanks.
Russia, which launched the war by invading Ukraine on February 24 last year, has increasingly portrayed the conflict as a confrontation with NATO.
Sergei Karaganov, a former adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said NATO shipments of weapons could lead to possible military retaliation against countries that supply them.
“By sending tanks, NATO countries become more open in war and that makes them potential targets,” he told Al Jazeera.
25 years of NATO expansion
Karajanov also blamed NATO for starting the conflict in Ukraine.
It’s not a war between Russia and Ukraine, it’s a Russia-West war. The Ukrainians are used as cannon fodder and the leadership is basically marionettes. The West was advancing and preparing to attack Russia, and Russia decided to launch an overt attack first. But NATO’s expansion has been 25 years.”
Despite massive arms supplies from the West, Karaganov expected a Russian victory.
Ultimately, Russia will destroy the Ukrainian army and the country will be completely demilitarized. He said that the neo-Nazi regime there would end.
Experts are divided on how effective Germany’s Leopard 2 and US Abrams tanks are against Russian forces.
“The delivery of the Leopard 2 will take our ground forces to a qualitatively new level,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
Although the Leopard 2s are heavier than the Soviet designed tanks, they have a strong advantage in firepower and survivability.
“One Leopard 2 can be equivalent to three or five Russian tanks,” Zhdanov said.
But he noted that the promised number of Western tanks is only the minimum that Ukraine needs to fend off a possible attack from Moscow, adding that Russia has thousands of heavy armored vehicles.
Zhdanov said: “Kyiv is preparing for a defensive operation and its outcome will determine the future course of the conflict.”
Russian military analysts have been more skeptical about NATO tanks, arguing that while the Abrams have proven clearly superior to older Soviet models during the war in Iraq, the newer Russian models are more of a match. They also noted that the Leopard 2 tanks used by the Turkish military against the Kurds in Syria had proven vulnerable to Soviet-era anti-tank weapons.
Andrei Kartapolov, a retired general who heads the defense affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, has argued that both the Leopard 2 and Abrams are inferior to the Russian T-90, which is a modified version of the T-72.
Russia’s newest tank, the T-14 Armata, has been manufactured in small numbers and has not yet been used in war.
The British Ministry of Defense said in its latest intelligence update that Russia had been working to prepare a small batch of T-14 tanks for deployment in Ukraine, but added that they had engine and other problems.
‘Big policy change’
Meanwhile, Russian observers noted that it could take a long time for Western tanks to reach Ukraine, adding that training Ukrainians to use them and maintain them properly would add to the challenge.
“This most likely means that the Ukrainian army will most likely receive a few small batches of tanks that may not be compatible with each other,” Moscow-based defense analyst Ilya Kramnik said in a comment.
Putin and his diplomats and military leaders have repeatedly warned the West that supplying them with long-range weapons capable of striking deep into Russia would represent a red line and lead to massive retaliation.
Zhdanov argued that by agreeing to arm Ukraine with tanks, the West had crossed an important psychological barrier and could eventually provide Kyiv with more lethal weapons.
“The delivery of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine marks a major change in the policy of the Western allies, who have stopped fearing escalation and are now ready to challenge Russia in the war for resources,” Zhdanov said.
“The West is forced to open the doors to Ukraine more widely for its military arsenals.”
Ukrainian officials have long hoped to acquire US F-16 fighters and long-range missiles for High Mobility Missile Systems, known as HIMARS, to strike targets far from the front lines.
These desires prompted ominous statements from Russian diplomat Konstantin Gavrilov, similar to those expressed earlier by Putin and others.
Gavrilov said at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“Don’t tell us then we didn’t warn you.”