This week, the US, Germany and France took a big step forward in probing that evolving question. All three announced that they’d give the Ukrainians new kinds of tanks. The Americans will send armored fighting vehicles called Bradleys. The Germans will supply their equivalent, called Marders (German for martens). The French will ship similar vehicles, called AMX-10s.
Calling them tanks is technically a stretch. The Bradleys and Marders have guns and treads, but their main purpose is to bring infantry soldiers wherever they’re needed. The AMX-10s have wheels instead of treads and mainly gather reconnaissance.
Ukraine needs these vehicles badly. But it’ll also require so-called “main battle tanks” such as the American M1 Abrams, the German Leopard 2 or the French Leclerc. Those are the heavy fire-breathing monsters that can punch through Russian lines and retake occupied Ukrainian territory.
Even so, the Bradleys, Marders and AMX-10s already represent a welcome shift. More than the other weapons the West has sent to Ukraine, they straddle the blurry line between defensive and offensive warcraft, a distinction that often makes little sense on the battlefield.
It does make a big difference in strategy and statecraft, of course. Western leaders such as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have so far erred on the side of caution, which they’ve defined as supplying Ukraine only with defensive weapons. These include Germany’s Gepard (cheetah) tanks, which specialize in shooting down enemy aircraft, missiles or drones, and IRIS-T, also an air-defense system. The Americans are sending their Patriot anti-missile launchers, and the Germans will add a second Patriot battery from their stocks.
The moral and strategic logic is that even Putin and the Russian public couldn’t possibly spin the supply of defensive weapons as crossing a red line. IRIS-T only fires at Russian objects if the Russians first shoot them at Ukrainian cities, so if the Russians don’t like it, they can just stop terrorizing Ukrainians.
But for Ukraine to defend itself and its people, it must also kick the Russians out of the Ukrainian regions that Putin ludicrously claimed last fall to have “annexed” — Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk. At a tactical level, the distinction between defense and offense therefore breaks down. Ukraine cannot win, and Russia cannot lose, if the Ukrainians can’t take the fight to the Russians.
That’s why the US, Germany and other allies must go further and deliver the main battle tanks and other arms Kyiv demands. But one stipulation makes sense. The Ukrainians must not use any Western weapons to launch a counterattack into Russia proper, and should probably restrain themselves from striking the Russian homeland altogether. If the Kremlin, with or without Putin, does have a red line, such an incursion would be its crossing — as Russia’s nuclear doctrine implies.
Beyond that, however, it probably makes no sense to worry all that much about Putin’s red lines. If he has any at all, they’re more likely to resemble something between magenta scribbles and pinkish shading. With his KGB mind, he could just be bluffing when he rattles his nuclear saber and makes other diabolical threats. Like all bullies, he wants to inspire fear but dreads strength. Let him worry about the West’s red lines instead.
When Putin invaded Ukraine, he assumed that he could overwhelm it while dividing, blackmailing and cowing the West into accepting the outcome — that’s the lesson he took from his annexation of Crimea in 2014. As he must now be realizing, he was wrong on all counts. But he must stay wrong. The best policy for the Ukrainians is to fight him with everything they’ve got, and for the West to give them everything they need to win.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”
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