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Ukraine Situation Report | 3 February 2023

03 February 2023

News of Russia’s anticipated Spring offensive has dominated news on the war in Ukraine in recent weeks, as has Germany’s decision to send much-needed tanks to Ukraine as Western allies bolster military aid for Kyiv, despite warnings from Moscow that doing so risks escalating the conflict. Berlin is set to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks and 88 Leopard 1 tanks to Ukraine and has cleared the way for other countries, such as Poland, to also send their German-manufactured tanks. Meanwhile, the US also confirmed it will send 30 of its most high-tech tanks, the M1 Abrams, following in the footsteps of the UK, which also committed 14 Challenger 2 tanks. All three tanks – the Leopard 2, the M1 Abrams, and the Challenger 2 – are vastly more powerful than the Soviet-era T-72s forming the bulk of the Ukrainian and Russian tank forces.

Germany’s provision of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine is a significant development, as it comes after weeks of Berlin coming under increasing international pressure to approve the export of the German-made tanks, with Poland threatening to send its tanks to Ukraine with, or without, Berlin’s approval. The western tanks have better mobility, greater firepower, stronger armour, and more advanced control and navigational systems – giving them an all-round ability advantage in operating combined manoeuvres involving artillery and infantry, including at night. This is something the Soviet-era tanks can’t match, and it arguably gives the Ukrainian forces enough of an advantage to potentially break through Russian lines and exercise more influence over where the frontline falls in occupied territory. If the tanks are as successful on the battleground as analysts hope, it’s possible Ukraine’s possession of them could give Kyiv a strategic advantage at the negotiating table, although a far greater number of tanks may be required to actualise such lofty goals. Ukraine has called for some 300 tanks to be sent by the West; however, so far the total number committed by various allied countries amounts to just less than 100. Furthermore, a logistical challenge still remains in actually transporting the tanks to the frontline, with some US officials warning full deployment could take months, if not years. While European tanks are less of a logistical challenge to transport, extensive training must still be undertaken by Ukrainian troops before the tanks make it to the battlefield – meaning any positive impact is unlikely to influence the conflict in the short-term.

Moscow has responded to Berlin’s tanks announcement by making a veiled nuclear threat – likening the situation in which Russian troops face German tanks in Ukraine to the World War II battle of Stalingrad, except highlighting that this time around, Russia had nuclear weapons. This is far from the first time Russian President Vladimir Putin has hinted at threatening to use nuclear weapons amid the war and is unlikely to be the last either. The remark has widely been taken as Moscow’s follow up to its previous warnings that if the West provided tanks to Ukraine, it risked escalating the conflict – a warning which conveniently came at a time when Russian troops are allegedly preparing to ramp up operations as part of an anticipated Spring offensive, regardless of whether Western allies sent tanks to Ukraine or not.

Russian troops have reportedly been amassing in their thousands in key positions over the last few weeks, with Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov claiming that the Kremlin is believed to have mobilised 500,000 troops in preparation for the rumoured Russian Spring offensive. Reznikov has also warned that he fears the offensive could be launched as early as late February – suggesting Moscow’s troops were in position for a potential 24 February launch. The date will mark the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and would come a day after Russia’s Defender of the Fatherland Day – a holiday celebrating Russian armed forces and commemorating the founding of the Red Army. On the ground, evidence of ramped up Russian operations has been most notable in the Donetsk region this week, where Russian troops have made pushes to the north and south of Bakhmut town.