Free the Leopards! shouted a group of protesters this past Friday in front of the German Chancellery, alluding to the request for Berlin to approve the shipment to Ukraine of German-made tanks.
Among the allies, there is still no unanimous opinion about its deployment in the war, but the eastern European country is increasing pressure to authorize its shipment. Mikhailo Podoliak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, Volodimir Zelensky, has asked to “stop trembling” before the Russian president.
After eleven months of war, experts say that Ukrainian tanks are in poor condition. Soviet-made and vintage, they have been used since the Donbas war began in 2014.
The armored vehicles are the T-72, produced in the 70s and deteriorated over time.
“They are not state-of-the-art like those manufactured in Europe and the United States,” says Pere Ortega, an expert in Military Industry, Security and Defense at the Delàs Center for Peace Studies.
“The Ukrainian tank park is destroyed. The magnitude is not known because the first thing that is sacrificed in a war is information and neither Ukraine nor Russia are giving it, so we do not know the number of armored vehicles that kyiv has available, ”he adds.
What is known is that, in order to overcome the Russian defenses, it asks its allies for heavy tanks. And especially he has his sights set on the German Leopards.
But what are they and why does Ukraine want them?
The jewel in the crown of European tanks
According to data from the British military studies institute RUSI, when the war broke out in Ukraine, the country had around 900 tanks, mostly Soviet-made. The T-64 and T-72 predominated.
To this is added the almost 300 tanks that Eastern European countries have sent to kyiv. The one that has contributed the most has been Poland, which, in March, sent more than 260 T-72s.
During 2022, the Oryx defense analysis center calculated that Ukraine had lost 449 tanks.
The two armored vehicles that Ukraine longs for are the German Leopards and the American Abrams. For geographical reasons, the best option for the country would be those made in Germany.
Like the Soviet-made T-72, the German Leopard 2 began to be manufactured in the 1970s. Even so, the Rheinmetall arms company already had a higher level of quality and armor.
It has a range of about 500 km, reaches a top speed of 68 km/h and is equipped with a 120 mm smoothbore gun.
It is the most common heavy armor in continental Europe, with more than a dozen countries using it, but they also have a presence in other countries, for example, Canada.
“Germany has supplied Leopards to twelve countries. Therefore, there is a greater possibility that these countries, which are within NATO, provide the accessories, charges and projectiles that they shoot,” says Ortega, who adds that it would also be easier to train in handling the Leopards.
Experts say that the average training time would be about five weeks, less than the American Abrams that have a more complex mode of use.
The Leopard 2s also have night vision and trigger systems that calculate the trajectory of a moving target.
“The firing capacity or the caliber of the guns is similar compared to the T-72. However, the technologies that are incorporated, such as night vision and laser vision, are not so developed in Soviet armored vehicles”, Ortega qualifies.
“With which, one Leopard could be considered equivalent to three Russian tanks. Although Russia has many more tanks than Germany, ”he settles.
Other European tanks?
There are 300 Western tanks that Ukraine has requested from NATO countries. Among them are the Challenger 2, whose shipment was announced by the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak.
Fourteen tanks that, despite being decades old, will be the most modern that Ukraine has.
It is the main battle tank of the British Army and the country has 227 units in service. The speed is somewhat lower than other armored vehicles since it only reaches 59 km/h and weighs about 62.5 tons.
However, it has high protection against direct fire weapons and its thick armor makes it effective against other tanks.
French President Emmanuel Macron, for his part, said on Sunday that he had asked his defense minister to “work on” the idea of sending some of France’s Leclerc main battle tanks to Ukraine.
These are from the 1990s, weigh 56 tons, have a cannon with a 4-kilometer range, and can fire up to six rounds per minute while on the march.
Until now Macron had been reluctant to send this type of military weaponry.
Not even after the Ukrainian Defense Ministry released a parody video boasting that the cars are “compact, sporty and easy to park” and quoting French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: “no matter how far go tanks, it’s not what they are that interests me, but what they can become”.
But earlier this month, France had already committed to sending AMX-10 RC armored surveillance and combat vehicles, known in French as “light tanks.”
Why is Germany reluctant to send the tanks?
So far Europe has not sent large amounts of weapons to Ukraine. Pere Ortega points out that it has been more about defensive material: many projectiles, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft material.
This reflects the precautions of European countries when participating in a very direct way in the war in Ukraine.
“Like it or not, Russia is part of Europe and we had very good trade relations with Russia, which have now been broken, but over time, presumably, they will be restored,” Ortega points out. “Sending heavy material to Ukraine would make it difficult to recover diplomatic, political and commercial relations with the Russian giant.”
Ortega believes that if the Leopard 2 tanks finally arrive in Ukraine, it will mean a turning point in the war by exponentially increasing the country’s military potential and making possible a reconquest of territories currently occupied by Russia.
But all this is very hypothetical for the moment, because the response capacity that Russia has in front of the Leopards is unknown, either by its T-72 tanks or by air with massive bombardments.
“Sending the Leopards would represent an increase in the potential for war on both sides and therefore escalate the war to worrying levels for all Europeans,” concludes Ortega.