US Is Sending Tanks to Ukraine. But Why?

The US announced on January 25 that it will send thirty-one M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. The tanks may take months or even years to arrive and may never see the battlefield. But that may never have been the intent.

The M1 Abrams is the main battle tank of the US military and is one of the most powerful and sophisticated tanks in the world. But, for Ukraine, that is both the advantage and the problem.

According to military analyst Daniel Davis, "it could take a year or more for all these Abrams to make it to Ukraine, so any expectations that these tanks will have an immediate impact on the fighting needs to be tempered."

In his comments announcing the decision, Biden said that delivering the tanks to Ukraine will "take time" without further specification.

Reporting ahead of the Biden administration’s announcement, the Associated Press said that "it could take months for the tanks to be delivered." Other reporting by the AP added that "it could take months or years for the tanks to be delivered." The longer estimate seems to be based on US intentions to purchase new tanks through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative package, which provides longer-range funding for weapons, rather than sending tanks from US stockpiles.

The tanks will be purchased from General Dynamics, the manufacturer of the tank. National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, says it will take many months for General Dynamics to build them. Kirby says the US doesn’t have the extra tanks in its arsenal and "even if there were excess tanks it would still take many months anyway," suggesting that the unbuilt tanks will take even longer to arrive.

Though the announcement comes at a critical time of the war, with Russia capturing Soledar and closing in on Bahkmut, key regions in the battle for the Donbas, and with an expected upcoming Russian offensive, the estimated timelines suggest that the tanks will likely not be available to Ukraine on time to help.

But that may never have been the intention. The release of the Abrams tanks may not be intended for the current battlefield. Instead, it may have been a strategic diplomatic sleight of hand performed to allow Germany to release its more quickly available and practical Leopard 2 tanks.

The US may never have intended the Abrams tanks for the current war. They may not even be the right tanks for this war. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley had both "recommended against sending M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine." In addition to "how long it takes to train personnel to operate the tanks and how difficult the tanks are to maintain," they have also said that the Abrams tanks "are not the right vehicles for the fight in Ukraine right now."

The US has said that maintenance of the high-tech tanks is very complex and that integrating the Abrams tanks into Ukraine’s combined operation will add significant logistical complexities. Undersecretary of defense for policy Colin Kahl told reporter that "The Abrams tank is very complicated. It’s expensive. It’s hard to train on. It has a jet engine. … It is not the easiest system to maintain." Austin has said that "we should not be providing the Ukrainians systems they can’t repair, they can’t sustain, and that they, over the long term, can’t afford, because it’s not helpful."

But if the Abrams tanks are not ideally suited to the current battlefield situation, and if they will likely not arrive on time, why is the US sending thirty-one of them to Ukraine?

The decision may have been more strategic and diplomatic than military. The Biden administration made the decision against the advice of the Pentagon. The tank the US really wants on the battlefields of Ukraine is the German Leopard 2. But Germany was never going to send them without the cover of the US agreeing to send their tanks. In case there was any doubt, on January 19, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, German Chancellor Olav Scholz privately, but very directly, told the US delegation that Germany was not going to send their tanks until the US agreed to send theirs.

The M1 Abrams may be a political, and not a military, weapon. By promising to send the tanks without ever specifying a delivery date, the US may have succeeded in giving Germany and Europe cover to send their Leopard tanks without ever actually sending US tanks onto the current battlefield.

But the decision could be pulling double, or even triple duty.

The war has to end sometime. And, when it does, there will need to be a negotiated settlement. That negotiated settlement will require some security guarantees for Ukraine. David Ignatius reports in The Washington Post that the Biden administration "has begun planning for an eventual postwar military balance that will help Kyiv deter any repetition of Russia’s brutal invasion." Ignatius says that the US is considering a security arrangement different from the original Ukrainian idea of a security guarantee from other countries. The US, he says, now believes that "the key is to give Ukraine the tools it needs to defend itself. Security will be ensured by potent weapons systems – especially armor and air defense. . . ."

The M1 Abrams will arrive on time for that. And that may be the second goal of the announcement to send tanks. They may not arrive in time to affect the current battlefield, but they may arrive on time to help prevent the next one.

And there may be yet one more reason for sending tanks: a more cynical reason. Russian specialist Geoffrey Roberts, professor emeritus of history at University College Cork, points out that the provision of tanks "will do little or nothing to change the strategic situation." He says that "In all probability, Moscow will complete its conquest of the Donbas region, thereby achieving the main goal of the so-called special military operation launched by Putin a year ago." Roberts then adds that "The real purpose of sending this western armor to Ukraine may be to provide political cover for politicians who fear the blame game that will erupt if and when Russia wins in Ukraine."

That the promised tanks will not arrive on time is not an inconvenience: it may be the intent. They do arrive on time to accomplish their goal if the goal is not the one presented. The Biden administration’s promise to send tanks that will likely not arrive on time serves three important purposes. It frees Germany and Europe up to deliver the Leopard 2 tanks that the US hopes will help Ukraine to put itself in an improved position on the battlefield that will give it a stronger position at the negotiating table. It contributes to the new vision of a security arrangement for Ukraine that will follow those negotiations. And it pre-emptively eliminates the West being blamed for not doing enough to put Ukraine in an even better position on the battlefield: a position that could not have been attained without actually sending heavier and more advanced weapons that would have risked Russian escalation.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.