BRUSSELS — They will soon be covered in mud, riddled with shrapnel damage and under fire on Ukraine’s battlefields. But the three new types of armored vehicles offered to Ukraine this week signal that the Western allies are gearing up for another bloody year as the war enters a new phase of Ukrainian offensives against dug-in Russian forces.
Not surprisingly, the Ukrainian government is ecstatic: “The time of weapons taboo has passed,” the foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said in a Facebook post, welcoming the new lethal equipment.
Russia is furious: The new vehicles are “another step toward an escalation of the Ukrainian conflict,” the embassy in Berlin decried in a statement.
And frontline troops are cynical, often complaining that while the allies are not letting them lose, they aren’t letting them win, either.
But the new weapons seem to mark a policy change in Washington, Paris and Berlin, giving more lethal support to the Ukrainian infantry, indicating less anxiety about Russian escalation and angling for more decisive Ukrainian victories in 2023.
The trilateral decision “clarifies Western support for Ukraine for a potential offensive in the months to come,” said Ulrich Speck, a German foreign policy analyst. “And it signals Moscow that we’re not on the trajectory to peace negotiations soon.”
The decision also reflects “a temperature change” in major Western capitals and a “reduction in the fear factor, a sense that a diminished Russia is less able or willing to escalate,” Mr. Speck said.
The French AMX-10s, German Marders and the U.S. M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles will enter the war on the heels of two successful Ukrainian offensives that pushed Russian forces from the country’s northeast and the south.
The new vehicles, known as infantry, or armored, fighting vehicles, are almost certainly intended to spearhead any future attempts to push the Russians out of Ukraine.
The State of the War
- Cease-Fire: On Jan. 5, the Kremlin announced a 36-hour cease-fire in Ukraine to mark the Eastern Orthodox Christmas. Amid continued attacks, Ukraine’s leaders dismissed the idea as cynical posturing by an untrustworthy enemy.
- Sexual Crimes: After months of bureaucratic and political delays, Ukrainian officials are gathering pace in documenting sexual crimes committed by Russian forces during the war.
- A New Resource: The Pentagon will provide to Kyiv Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which offer greater protection and firepower than any of the trucks or armored personnel carriers the West has sent so far.
- Targeting Cellphones: Ukraine is able to target Russian soldiers by pinpointing their cellphone signals. Despite the deadly results, Moscow’s troops keep defying a ban on using phones.
“The Ukrainians are planning to do more offensive operations against dug-in Russian positions, so getting better infantry fighting vehicles to get close to defensive positions is important,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
The new equipment will be arriving just in time. After more than 10 months of bloody fighting, Ukraine’s Soviet-era vehicles that mirror the capabilities of the AMX, M2 and Marder have been slowly destroyed and damaged, according to Ukrainian troops and a U.S. official.
But if not sent in large numbers, the recent armored additions will likely change little on the broader battlefield and add to Ukraines growing logistics burden, as Ukrainian mechanics struggle with a diverse fleet of vehicles that each have their own parts and ammo requirements.
The trio of vehicles are not the first armored vehicles sent by the West to Ukraine, but they are arguably the most advanced, occupying a category of war machines that are not quite armored personnel carriers, though some can carry troops, and not quite tanks.
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The AMX-10 has a 105-millimeter cannon. The M2 Bradley can be fitted with a 25-millimeter cannon and an anti-tank guided missile. The Marder is typically fitted with a 20-millimeter gun. The three different vehicles use different ammunition types, meaning more of a logistics headache for the Ukrainian troops using them. The French one runs on large tires; the others on treads.
But the Bradley and Marder can both carry troops, making them critical for any kind of future Ukrainian offensive operations against Russia’s defenses along a front line that stretches more than 600 miles and has, in recent weeks, mostly stabilized after being reinforced by newly mobilized troops.
Ukraine has been pressing its Western allies regularly for more sophisticated infantry equipment, including armored infantry fighting vehicles and top-of-the-line Western tanks, like the American Abrams and the German Leopard II.
But Washington, Paris and Berlin have been cautious, trying to provide the weapons Ukraine actually needs and is capable of maintaining, while also keeping a wary eye on the depth of their own sometimes meager stockpiles.
American officials have argued that Ukraine has enough good tanks in its Soviet-era T-72s, though it is running short of ammunition for them. The Americans and Germans argue that to train Ukrainians to operate modern Leopard or Abrams tanks — and to maintain them in the field — would take many months. The logistics chain needed for a fuel-guzzling tank like the Abrams is also extensive, added a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss tactical matters.
Currently, Ukrainian forces are using their Soviet-era tanks in more of a support role, keeping them protected behind the lines and employing their large main guns like artillery. They often rely on armored personnel carriers to move troops quickly in offensive maneuvers.
On Friday, the Biden administration announced a new $3 billion package of military assistance for Ukraine that includes Bradley Fighting Vehicles, which officials said would be especially helpful to Ukrainian units fighting Russian forces in the Donbas region of the country’s east. The administration said it would send 50 Bradleys. Germany has said it will provide 40 Marders.
The German coalition government led by a Social Democratic chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has been especially careful to draw a line between defensive weapons, like the Gepard mobile antiaircraft vehicles, which have tank treads, and weapons that can be used for offensive infantry fighting, like the Marder and the Leopard. Berlin has maintained that it would not be the first NATO ally to supply such weapons to Ukraine.
President Emmanuel Macron of France has held a similar stance, if more quietly. But on Wednesday, after discussions with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, Mr. Macron suddenly announced that France would supply its AMX-10 to Ukraine — an infantry fighting vehicle with wheels, not tank treads, in service since the 1980s and being phased out in the French military.
A NATO diplomat said on Friday that France, Germany and the United States had been discussing providing Ukraine with such vehicles, including the American Bradley and the German Marder, but that Mr. Macron went ahead on his own and announced France’s decision.
On Thursday, after a conversation between President Biden and Mr. Scholz, the Germans said, the Americans and Germans consulted and announced their own decision to supply Bradleys and Marders, satisfying the German condition that Berlin not be the first to supply a new category of Western weaponry to Ukraine.
Germany also announced that it would supply a Patriot missile battery to Ukraine in addition to the one that it was supplying to Poland — and which it had initially refused to give directly to Ukraine. That taboo, too, has now been broken.
“It’s another step forward for Germany, which has been going one step at a time since Feb. 24,” said Ulrike Franke, a German defense expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Ukraine has been asking for these weapons since April, she said, but for Germany “it was a self-imposed taboo.” In Berlin, “we keep having these slightly absurd debates — offensive versus defensive, light versus heavy, modern versus old — and then a few months later we change our lines again,” she said. It’s an important evolution, “mostly in the German imagination,” she said.
But it is also a bad look for the Franco-German relationship, she said, looking either like Berlin needs a push from Paris or that the two countries can’t work well together, with Mr. Macron pre-empting matters on his own.
Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from New York. Eric Schmitt, John Ismay, Lara Jakes, Natalia Yermak, Cassandra Vinograd and Michael D. Shear contributed reporting.