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WASHINGTON – The White House relented Wednesday after months of pleas from Ukraine for the Pentagon's most lethal armored vehicle: the Abrams tank.
Fighting this winter has been described by a senior U.S. military official as "savage," likening it to World War I trench warfare. Analysts expect Russia to mount what could be a fierce offensive in a campaign to end Ukraine’s string of battlefield successes in recent months and reverse the heavy troop and territorial losses Russia suffered in the first year of fighting.
Since the war began, the White House and Pentagon have sought to supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs to resist President Vladimir Putin's aggression without sparking a wider war in Europe. Yet Biden's announcement Wednesday also signals that the war, launched with a militarily unprovoked invasion and soon to enter its second year, shows no sign of ending.
After more than 100,000 casualties on each side, it's about to get even bloodier.
"From a military standpoint, this is a very, very difficult fight," Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said recently. "This fight stretches all the way from right now ... from Kharkiv down to Kherson, and there's significant fighting ongoing."
How did we get here?
In the fall, Ukrainian forces, using sophisticated, accurate rocket artillery supplied by the Pentagon, chased Russian forces from large portions of land seized in the early the war. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed Congress in December, thanking the United States for its contributions but stressing more was needed. Abrams tanks have been near the top of the Ukrainian wish list.
Some in the Biden administration had resisted sending the tanks, fearing it would provoke Putin, said Seth Jones, senior vice president and director of the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Those concerns were misplaced, he said, and have been overtaken by the concern that Russia is poised to make significant gains this spring.
"It would look really bad if Russia makes advances on the ground, and we could have helped by supplying tanks," Jones said.
What do Abrams and Leopards provide?
Biden said that sending the 31 Abrams tanks is the equivalent of one Ukrainian battalion.
M1 Abrams tanks, and the near-simultaneous commitment of western allies to provide their own advanced armor, including, importantly Germany's Leopard 2, almost assures that. Germany and other European allies will outfit two Ukrainian battalions with tanks. A U.S. tank battalion has about 60 tanks.
The Abrams, with a 120mm cannon, robust armor protection and mobility will outgun and outrun Russian and many of its Soviet-era tanks. Germany's Leopard is also a modern, highly capable tank.
"They are better than Soviet tanks, plus the Ukrainians will be trained better," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
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What's happening in Russia's war in Ukraine?
Conditions on the battlefield have changed in recent weeks, John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communication, told reporters Wednesday. For months, the Ukrainian and Russian forces have waged a deadly artillery duel along a mostly static front that stretches about 700 miles in eastern Ukraine. During that time, Putin has sent tens of thousands of conscripts as reinforcements and for what is expected to be a new offensive this spring.
“These tanks are meant to help Ukraine fight effectively on open terrain, to defend their sovereignty and their territory and to win back territory that the Russians have taken from them,” Kirby said.
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Will the war in Ukraine end soon?
Help is on the way. But it will take months to arrive.
Unlike many recent announcements of military aid to Ukraine, including last week's batch of $2.5 billion in arms, the Pentagon won't rely on its existing stocks to supply Abrams. The $400 million package of Abrams tanks, recovery vehicles and spare parts will be procured through contracts.
That will take time.
The process will take "many months," Kirby said, although the Leopards will arrive sooner. Meantime, Ukrainian soldiers will train to use the Abrams so they'll be able to take them into combat soon after they're fielded.
Which is to say, there's no end in sight to the war.
“I think we need to prepare ourselves to have to continue to support Ukraine for quite some time,” Kirby said.
Along with Abrams, the Pentagon has recently begun sending Bradley and Stryker armored personnel carriers – the vanguard of U.S. ground attack forces.
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Will Putin retaliate against U.S. for sending M1 Abrams tanks?
How Putin responds to Russian tanks being shredded by U.S. heavy armor will be closely watched.
The White House and Pentagon have calibrated aid to Ukraine, gradually increasing the lethality and sophistication of the weaponry it has provided. The weapons need to pack enough punch to help Ukrainian soldiers resist Russian advances but not too much to prompt Putin to lash out a NATO ally in Europe, potentially widening the war.
U.S. aid began with shoulder-fired anti-tank and aircraft missiles, ratcheted up last summer to highly accurate rocket-assisted artillery and is being capped off now with top-of-the line American armor. Since Feb. 2022, the U.S. has provided nearly $28 billion in military aid to Ukraine.
Putin's potential response is factored into all types of lethal aid provided to Ukraine, according to U.S. official who described the administration's approach on condition of anonymity. Abrams tanks have not been deemed overly provocative, the official said.
The tanks, Biden said, won't challenge Russia's sovereignty.
"There is no offensive threat to Russia," Biden told reporters.
Abrams and Leopards, however, will raise the stakes for Putin of continuing the war.
"The costs for Russia most likely will only continue to mount, whether because a lack of boots on the ground, further economic decline from sanctions, or outright political protest," said Will Pomeranz, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, a think tank dedicated to Russian and Eurasia research. "If this is a war of attrition, then the arrival of new equipment from the U.S. and Germany can only be cause for optimism for Ukraine.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Delivery of M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine pushes Biden closer to conflict