Observations of an expat: Ukraine tanks conundrum

Supplying tanks to Ukraine is not as simple a matter as it may appear at first glance.

It is an issue that is interwoven with competing and overlapping problems of military strategy, political pitfalls, German guilt, Russian nationalism and expansionist ambitions, Ukrainian self-determination, nuclear blackmail, the long-term prospects for peace in Eastern Europe and the age-old battle of good versus evil.

The solution to send perhaps a total of 200 tanks from various NATO countries to Zelensky’s army is insufficient to satisfy the Ukrainians and more than enough to fuel the Russian propaganda machine.

Ukraine is flat tank country. Ukraine wants NATO tanks – especially the German Leopards – to launch a counter-offensive to regain territory.

NATO initially rushed to Ukraine’s aid with defensive equipment; primarily anti-tank and anti-missile weaponry to stop the massive Russian tank attack from Belarus and to blunt Russian artillery barrages.

It worked. In fact, better than expected. So much so that Volodomyr Zelensky appears determined to build on his success to drive the Russians out of all the territory which Ukraine has lost since 2014 (and Russia has annexed) including Crimea.

This would seem quite reasonable as international law is quite-rightly wedded to the principle of self-determination and in 1994 Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders and its territorial integrity in return for Ukraine relinquishing its nuclear weapons and signing the nuclear non- proliferation treaty.

But Eastern Ukraine is predominantly Russian-speaking. The majority of its inhabitants have traditionally looked east to Moscow. As for Crimea, it has been Russian since 1783 and one of Moscow’s most important naval centres.

For these reasons the Russian annexation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine is extremely popular in Russia and with a significant proportion of the population in the disputed territories.

There is a fear in some diplomatic circles that driving Putin’s troops out of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea will only create a long-term problem that would make the Irish and Arab-Israeli questions look like two old mice squabbling over a piece of mouldy cheese.

But set against that is not only the principle of self-determination but Putin’s expansionist dreams elsewhere in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. There are significant Russian-speaking populations in Moldova, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyryzygstan and even Finland. Putin has publicly cast his covetous eye over most of these territories. Allowing Putin to hold onto Ukrainian territory sets a precedent for his claims elsewhere.

Then there is the issue of Germany. Increasingly German diplomacy is conflated with European diplomacy because of Germany’s economic dominance of the EU. Berlin would prefer to delegate most of its international politicking to Brussels, but the Ukraine War has dictated otherwise.

The main reason for German reluctance is the Nazi-tinged thundercloud of guilt that still hangs over the German people. That cloud is most apparent in Ukraine which suffered more than any other European country from World War Two. Twenty percent of all Ukrainians died, including 900,000 Jews.

There is also the fact that roughly 16.5 million Germans live in the old communist East Germany. They spent 45 years under Russian/Soviet rule. They didn’t like it. But that did not stop them from forming relationships with individual Russians, businesses and organisations.

Since the days of Ostpolitik, Détente and Willy Brandt, the German government has emphasised trade over military preparedness in their dealings with Moscow. The policy has clearly backfired and created the current European energy crisis. Chancellor Olof Scholz claims to have learned the painful lesson, but it is still difficult to reverse 60-years of improving Russian-German relations.

Germans, along with almost all of Eastern Europe, would be among the first to suffer if the Ukraine War goes nuclear. The Russians have publicly announced that their enclave of Kaliningrad bristles with missiles capable of easily reaching Berlin. The Russians, for their part, never seem to tire of threatening the nuclear option despite Chinese demands that they shut up.

Finally, there is the nature of the Russian regime. It is an autocratic, thoroughly corrupt, kleptocratic oligarchy determined to thwart he world’s rule-based order. They are guilty of war crimes in Ukraine, Syria, Chechnya and probably elsewhere as well.

Putin’s regime is borderline evil and the closest the world has come to a battle between good and evil since World War Two. Be aware and prepared for the dangers of standing up to the Russian bear. But after considering the options and consequences, send more tanks.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War” and “America Made in Britain". To subscribe to his email alerts on world affairs click here.

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19 Comments

  • Mel Borthwaite 28th Jan '23 - 11:29am

    An excellent summary of the situation. My only quibble is the idea that the Russian regime wishes to thwart ‘the world’s rule-based order’. I think a better interpretation is that Russia believes it should be entitled to the same exceptions to the ‘world’s rule-based order’ that the USA/NATO/The West appears to be able to exercise. For example, the world’s rule-based order supports territorial integrity and borders not being changed by force, but NATO – without UN permission – chose to use its military might to force Serbia to withdraw from part of its internationally recognised territory, and then Western Countries have recognised the independence of that territory (Kosovo) from Serbia…a clear example of an internationally recognised border being changed by force. Similarly, a coalition of countries led by the USA decided to invade Iraq without the permission of the UN Security Council. Somehow none of the leaders of that illegal war have appeared in The Hague on war crimes charges, but the leaders of other countries that launch wars or invasions of other countries are routinely branded war criminals by western countries. And, of course, some countries are allowed to annex territory that is internationally recognised as part of another country and face no sanctions (Israel and the Golan Heights)…so much for the ‘world’s rule-based order’.

  • Daniel Howitt 28th Jan '23 - 11:48am

    Well that started off well and then wandered into the land of Appeasement. The best historical comparison would be Hitler and the the Sudetenland….where Hitler drive to reunite the historical German lands then lead to Munch and the WWIi. Putin won’t use Nuclear weapons as China has already told him not to, and China is eyeing up the lands in Siberia.
    So give Ukraine the tanks…and damn Putin

  • @daniel Howitt. And if you had read to the end you would know that I am in total agreement with you. But at the same time I think we should all be fully aware, and prepared to accept, the consequences.

  • Decisions on military conflict can often turn on the position of key individuals in government at the time. Had Lloyd George argued against war in July 1914, he may well have carried a sceptical Liberal cabinet with him. Had Halifax accepted the role of PM in 1940 instead of Churchill it may be that the UK would have sought a peace agreement with Hitler brokered by Mussolini and Hitler and Stalin would have fought out WW2 in Europe between them. If Gordon Brown had been PM in 2003, in place of Tony Blair, would the labour party have backed the invasion of Iraq?
    UK relations with Russia have been fraught since Putin came to power. On the one hand London has been the financial centre of choice for Russian oligarchs and the influx of Russian capital has been welcomed with open arms. On the other hand Russian emigres like Litvinenko have been murdered on British soil by agents of the Russian state.
    Liberal Democrat policy on defence has been firmly based in liberal internationalism and the rules-based system. When trade, aid, diplomacy and deterrence fail to prevent conflict. it is necessary to consider military interventions to protect ourselves and fulfil our international obligations such as the Budapest Memorandum. The UK should intervene only when there is a clear legal and/or humanitarian case, endorsed by a vote in Parliament, working within the remit of international institutions wherever and whenever possible. This is where we are today with the Russia/Ukraine conflict and why Tom is tight to conclude “after considering the options and consequences, send more tanks”.

  • Mel Borthwaite 28th Jan '23 - 3:42pm

    @Joe Bourke
    “The UK should intervene only when there is a clear and/or humanitarian case, endorsed by a vote in parliament, working within the remit of international institutions wherever and whenever possible.”
    Sounds like the reasoning Tony Blair could have used prior to him deciding to join the illegal invasion of Iraq….
    Surely the UK position should be that military force is only justified if we or NATO is attacked, or if the UN Security Council gives express permission for military force to be used.

  • Mel,

    the UN Security Council dues not need to give permission for the supply of arms. The right to collective self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter provides a fundamental legal basis for individual States to supply lethal military assistance to Ukraine.
    Under international law, States have the right, pursuant to Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, to assist Ukraine militarily as it is under armed attack from the Russian Federation and is exercising its inherent right to self-defense.
    This is an exception to the prohibition on the use of force in Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter that generally bans the use of force by states except when carefully circumscribed conditions are met, stating:
    “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”
    The 1990-91 Gulf war had the backing of a UN resolution . The U.S. and UK governments, along with others, argued that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was legal because it was already authorized by existing United Nations Security Council resolutions and a resumption of previously temporarily suspended hostilities, and not a war of aggression as the United States and UK were acting as agents for the defense of Kuwait in response to Iraq’s 1990 invasion. That view is disputed by others (including Liberal Democrats) who consider this legal rationale to be untenable, and are of the view that as the invasion was not supported by a fresh UN resolution it was therefore illegal.
    Russia’s 2014 and 2022 invasions of Ukraine (according to Sergey Lavrov) are based on the right to self-determination of Russian speaking regions of Ukraine. This supposed legal rationale is similarly untenable and therefore illegal under International law.

  • Steve Trevethan 29th Jan '23 - 8:26am

    Who paid/pays for the tanks and other weaponry?
    To whom did/do any payments go?
    Can any account of this costly conflict be sufficient without the economic facets being addressed?

  • Mick taylor 29th Jan '23 - 8:35am

    There is a fundamental error in the posts that have appeared on LDV, namely that Russia can be defeated and driven out of the occupied parts of Ukraine.
    It is a very dangerous error, because if Putin even thought that he was risking defeat, he would almost certainly deploy nuclear weapons. Now whether or not his generals would actually allow that is a moot point, but can the world take the risk?
    Now before anyone suggests that this is appeasement, that is absolutely not the case. I am arguing, as I have before, for negotiations leading to a peace treaty. What form that would take, I have no idea, because laying down conditions in advance ensures almost certain failure.
    Many commentators have argued that Russia has no case for its actions, but it is never wise to pretend that one side is 100% right and the other 100% wrong. You may argue that Putin is paranoid and that his fears are groundless, but as long as he is in power, you have to take his views into account.
    Compromise will be necessary to achieve peace. I can fully understand Ukraine’s desire to retain all its territories, but there may be room for a deal in other areas. We will never know unless there are peace talks.
    Without both sides getting round the table to discuss peace, all we know for certain is that many more people will die, on both sides, and this conflict will drag on endlessly.

  • Yeovil Yokel 29th Jan '23 - 8:58am

    Mick: Don’t worry about Russia’s repeated threats to deploy nuclear weapons, Tom Arms has covered this in previous LDV posts. In short: China would be angered, and China is crucial in Russia’s geo-political calculations – it values its trading relationships with the West far, far more than its ideological alliance with Russia. Plus, the US have made clear to Russia through its back-channels of communications that use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine would result in a massive act of non-nuclear retaliation, such as the destruction of its Black Sea fleet.

  • Mick,

    there is also a fundamental error in assuming that Russia can defeat Ukraine on its own territory while it has the support of the West and sustain an occupation anymore than it could in Afghanistan.
    French lawmakers continue calling for a diplomatic solution granting security guarantees to both parties https://tass.com/world/1568583
    “A dialogue is needed to reach peace settlement. The peace criteria are the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine’s territory and security guarantees to all, both Ukraine and Russia. The rest are symbolic solutions, which, to my mind, do not bring us closer to peace,”
    “Lest us stop pretending that the war in Ukraine can be stopped only by military ways. It is a mistake. What we need to do is to continue diplomatic efforts towards soonest peace”.
    The Ukrainian foreign minister has echoed those sentiments saying “Every war ends in a diplomatic way. Every war ends as a result of the actions taken on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”
    Ukraine has called for a peace summit and President Zelenskyy has laid out a 10-point peace plan, including the release of all prisoners of war, the withdrawal of Russian forces and cessation of hostilities, nuclear safety and the “establishment of the Special Tribunal regarding the crime of Russia’s aggression.” Russia is unlikely to agree to a special tribunal but could be open to many of the other negotiating points, if it is willing to seek a compromise. Crimea may be the sticking point.

  • Nigel Quinton 29th Jan '23 - 5:40pm

    Thanks Tom for an excellent summary. I’m afraid for once I disagree with Mick, what he says does sound like appeasement to me and from what I have read and listened to it seems that Putin’s threats are not credible. That said, I found myself very much in agreement with Matthew Paris on Any Questions this week; we should support Ukraine with as much armoury as we can afford and allow them to recover at least the lands Russia has taken in the past year, but we should also encourage some restraint before we get dragged into a war to recover Crimea and the Donbas lands ceded in 2014. I was disappointed that Daisy Cooper was so vehemently opposed to what he was saying.

  • Mel Borthwaite 30th Jan '23 - 9:18am

    @Nigel Quinton
    Sorry to disagree with you but I agree with Mick Taylor. I know that ‘appeasement’ is a dirty word but the reality is that any outcome that involves Ukraine having to compromise on anything will be viewed as appeasement because Russia will have obtained a concession as a result of war. In other words, the only way to avoid an outcome that involves some degree of appeasement is Russia’s defeat. While I agree that it is unlikely that Russia can completely defeat Ukraine and sustain a total occupation, I also think it is equally unlikely that Russia can be defeated. Therefore, unless we are willing to see the war last for years (perhaps decades) to come, we need to be open to a peace that involves compromises….but that will be viewed as rewarding Russia for aggression and ‘appeasement’.

  • Nigel Quinton 30th Jan '23 - 12:14pm

    Mel, I think you make my point for me – some form of compromise will be necessary, hence my support for what Matthew Paris was saying. I don’t know where the line will be drawn, but as you say the chance of Russia being pushed back to the pre 2014 border is very slim. Let’s not use the word appeasement either, it’s very loaded and not at all helpful. My take for what it’s worth is that the west effectively gave in to Putin in 2014 – at a time when Zelensky was still a TV actor of course, and Ukraine was a basket case of corruption. Any “solution” that sees Russia pushed back to where they were this time last year will be seen as a disaster for Putin, so I see little “appeasement” in that scenario. What Ukraine needs now is the means to threaten even worse than that for Putin, so that achieving Putin’s removal from everything he has taken by force in the past year becomes a potential outcome. So yes, we need to arm Ukraine more, but we should council for peace once that peace is achievable without rewarding the 2022 invasion.

  • Zachary Adam Barker 30th Jan '23 - 9:43pm

    “So yes, we need to arm Ukraine more, but we should council for peace once that peace is achievable without rewarding the 2022 invasion.”

    That means getting Russian forces out of Ukrainian territory then. Anything less is a reward for invading.

  • Julian Tisi 3rd Feb '23 - 11:56am

    “But Eastern Ukraine is predominantly Russian-speaking. The majority of its inhabitants have traditionally looked east to Moscow. As for Crimea, it has been Russian since 1783 and one of Moscow’s most important naval centres. For these reasons the Russian annexation of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine is extremely popular in Russia and with a significant proportion of the population in the disputed territories”
    You are rehashing some well worn myths here. Myths that have helped lead us to where we are sadly. The Russian invasion / annexation of Crimea in 2014 met with only muted reaction in the West partly because of the propaganda coming from Putin and regurgitated by many in the West. The idea too that because people are Russian speaking they will automatically want to be ruled by Russia is another myth that needs to be laid to rest.
    https://www.chathamhouse.org/2021/05/myths-and-misconceptions-debate-russia/myth-12-crimea-was-always-russian

  • Peter Hirst 4th Feb '23 - 3:04pm

    It is sad that conflict seems to continue until both parties are ready to agree on common goals. This as shown elsewhere can take a long time with accompanying casualties and economic destruction. Partly this is a result of sanctions being ineffective. It is also partly due to the inadequacy of our national infrastructure such as the United Nations. It is probably easier with the globalisation we now have to reform and improve the effeciveness of the institutions though that requires political will and courage.

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