Editorial: A Russian offensive looms. Why has the West been hesitating to help Ukraine?

A pivotal juncture in the war in Ukraine looms this spring, when Russian forces are expected to launch a major offensive, most likely in the country’s eastern Donbas region where the Kremlin’s strategy has, up until now, failed badly.

Russia has been building up troop strength around the eastern city of Luhansk and fortifying territory it holds in the Donbas with pillboxes and miles of trenches and “dragon’s teeth,” concrete pyramids that impede tank movement.

The Kremlin also has rained barrages of missiles on apartment buildings, hospitals and schools in Ukrainian cities — a campaign meant not just to inflict a barbaric toll on civilian lives, but also to force Ukraine to use up its air defense capabilities. One of those missile strikes on an apartment building in the central city of Dnipro killed 46 people — including six children — on Jan. 14 and wielded enough destructive power to instantaneously incinerate more than 30 apartments.

For Ukraine and its Western allies, there’s no time to waste. The U.S. and NATO must help Kyiv brace for whatever westward offensive push Putin envisions.

That means not tarrying on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s plea for tanks. Britain understands the urgency. The U.K. has committed to sending 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine. “This is the time,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said during a recent visit to Washington. “If we want to bring this to a conclusion, we have to do it quickly … to give Ukraine the tools they need to get the job done.” Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who just visited Ukraine, has said much the same thing.

Other Western allies, however, have been stalling. Up until this week, the Biden administration had refused to send Zelenskyy any of its M1 Abrams tanks, relying on the excuse that those tanks have special maintenance and fuel needs, and are excessively complex for Ukrainians to operate. On Tuesday, there were signs that President Joe Biden was reconsidering his reluctance; The Wall Street Journal reported that the administration was leaning toward sending as many as 30 Abrams tanks to Ukraine, and that a final decision could come later in the week. But the Journal also reported that it could take up to a year to deliver the first tanks.

Germany, meanwhile, has resisted supplying Ukrainian forces with its Leopard 2 battle tanks, which like the M1 Abrams are top-shelf fighting machines that can help turn the tide of a war. Germany has sold Leopard 2 tanks to other NATO allies, and had been preventing those countries from shipping some of their tanks to Ukraine.

The contracts those countries have signed with Germany require them to get Berlin’s permission to re-export the tanks to another country. German officials have suggested they won’t stand in the way of countries sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, but Berlin has yet to formally grant the necessary permission to other countries, or to commit to sending its own tanks.

It’s the kind of fissure in NATO unity that President Vladimir Putin desperately craves.

Since his fateful decision to invade Ukraine nearly a year ago, the Russian leader has been humiliated on the battlefield by a Ukrainian fighting force he grossly underestimated. With the onset of winter, he has been able to slow the advance of Ukrainian troops farther into Russian-held Donbas lands, and even claimed victory in Soledar, a small town outside of the critical city of Bakhmut. It’s widely expected that, in coming months, Putin will mount an aggressive offensive to push Ukrainian forces out of the Donbas and harness enough momentum to keep Russians behind the war movement.

And that’s precisely why the U.S. and the rest of NATO must stop intra-alliance hemming and hawing, and give Ukraine the tanks it wants and needs — as soon as possible.

Abrams and Leopard tanks are ideally suited for the plains that stretch across much of the Donbas. They could play a key role in breaking through Russian lines, and moving Kyiv closer toward ending this heinous, destructive war. The Biden team’s rationale for not sending Abrams tanks was flimsy at best. The vehicles’ turbines are anything but fuel-finicky — they can run on jet fuel, diesel or gasoline. And there’s no reason why training can’t be ramped up to get Ukrainian tank crews up to speed.

Washington’s reluctance may have had more to do with worries about unnecessarily provoking Putin. However, the Biden administration already has sent HIMARS air defense systems to Ukraine and has committed to supplying Patriot missile systems — the kind of assistance to Ukraine that Putin previously had spoken ominously about. HIMARS launchers have been invaluable in Ukraine’s eastward push in the Donbas.

Putin’s unpredictability is indeed worrisome, but the bigger concern must be Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against whatever counteroffensive the Kremlin is blueprinting right now.

Ukraine has surprised the world with its resolve in the face of Putin’s despotic quest to colonize the sovereign, West-allied nation at any cost. But it’s not resolve alone that will save Ukraine. Ukrainians must have the means to save their country. And it’s incumbent on the U.S. and the rest of NATO to quickly and robustly supply Ukraine with the arms and vehicles it needs to defeat the Kremlin’s barbarity.

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