US Push for Heavy Arms to Ukraine is a Dangerous Escalation

Peace Advocate January 2023

ADAZI, LATVIA, JUNE 2016 - U.S. M1 Abrams tanks fire during the "Saber Strike" NATO military exercise. Photo: Karlis Dambrans/Shutterstock
ADAZI, LATVIA, JUNE 2016 - U.S. M1 Abrams tanks fire during the "Saber Strike" NATO military exercise. Photo: Karlis Dambrans/Shutterstock

by Richard Krushnic

Armored fighting vehicles, Patriot missiles, main battle tanks. The red lines keep whizzing by.

Ukraine’s military is not faring well in the war with Russia, despite much Western propaganda to the contrary. As cracks are appearing in NATO’s façade of unity, Ukraine’s setbacks seem to be lighting a fire under U.S. policy-makers to up the ante and significantly boost the already massive level of military aid and heavy weaponry being sent to that country. Red lines are being crossed – consequences be damned! This more deeply hawkish stance represents a new and dangerous escalation of the Ukraine War – one which peace advocates must counter with urgent calls for a ceasefire and negotiations instead of more weapons.

Recent analyses of Ukraine’s immense losses of men, armored vehicles and artillery indicate that its offensive capability has been seriously weakened and its ability to defend territory continues to decline. The conflict has been shifting in Russia’s favor due to the destruction of Ukrainian soldiers and matériel and its shortage of artillery shells. Experts on both sides say the Russians have been firing five or six times more artillery shells daily than the Ukrainians since February 2022.

Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, in a Washington Post op-ed, argue that time is not on Ukraine’s side. “The U.S. must act fast or watch Ukraine suffer eventual defeat,” writes Danny Haiphong, in summarizing their op-ed for the Black Agenda Report. “Of course, for neocon hawks like Rice and Gates, a negotiated settlement is simply out of the question. The only option for the U.S. political and military establishment is to fortify Ukraine with the heaviest military equipment such as battle tanks, as well as a constant stream of artillery and shells replacements.”

The crux of the issue is that Ukraine’s relative lack of artillery and armor leaves it with only infantry assaults to capture territory; this means heavy losses of Ukrainian troops as they advance in the face of Russian artillery. Nevertheless, they must obtain territory this way if they are to convince NATO to keep providing weapons. The Russians withdraw when a massive infantry assault threatens to overwhelm their positions. They are content to temporarily cede territory, then draw in and destroy Ukrainian forces later. In this way, Russia minimizes its losses while inflicting heavy damage on the Ukrainian military. Thus, the grinding war of attrition has gradually strengthened Russia’s hand.

Red Lines Crossed

Military and civilian analysts in the US and NATO (unlike the rosier picture in the mass media) say the job of the Ukraine military is to hold on until the spring, when more NATO equipment will be on the battlefield. (See the ongoing episodes of the YouTube Military Summary Channel and The New Atlas for excellent analysis of the strategic and tactical situation.) The US and NATO nations fear that the Ukrainian Army won’t be able to hold the Russians back in the spring, so they have begun to cross red lines that they have hitherto been fearful of breaching. This article concentrates only on red line crossings that threaten Russia with resounding defeat, for it is this author’s opinion that, in such a case, Russia will use tactical nuclear weapons and all bets are off. If the US and its NATO allies supply Ukraine with main battle tanks, air defense, and artillery in enough numbers, training, and ammo to threaten Russian disaster, nukes will appear on the battlefield.

The red lines just crossed include sending armored fighting vehicles and light tanks in enough numbers to be effective—nearly 200 will begin arriving soon and more will follow—and Patriot and Seasparrow missiles, on top of the Javelins, Stingers and NASAMS already there. (Air defense will be analyzed in a subsequent article.) By the time the newly committed air-defense missiles are on the battlefield, Raytheon missiles may be more important for Ukraine than what remains of their prewar air-defense systems and similar Russian systems sent by other countries. It is not the advanced system itself that passes a red line; it is that system in enough numbers, and with enough trained personnel and ammunition, to make a meaningful difference on the battlefield.

The artillery red line was crossed not long after the beginning of the war in February 2022. Many NATO countries have replaced at least most of the Ukrainian artillery pieces destroyed, and 155-millimeter howitzer shells are being called in from NATO countries, South Korea, and Israel. The US is ramping up production, but is not able to provide the needed quantity of shells. It produces 15,000 a month, enough to last three days on the battlefield.

The main battle tank red line seemed to have been crossed by May 2022, with around 350 tanks promised or on the way, to be added to the 800 tanks Ukraine still had in May.  Back in April 2022 Poland started sending 240 Soviet-era T-72 tanks to Ukraine, and the Czech Republic and Greece moved the total up to nearly 300, and 50 heavy artillery tanks moved it up to 350 Russia did not react seriously, so passing the main battle tank line in May was successful for NATO.  However, there is more red-line fear of sending more main battle tanks now.

Apparently, so many have been destroyed or are out of ammo, that there is a desperate need for 300 modern main battle tanks in January 2023. While main battle tanks may be the most important red line yet, only around 26 have been committed, by Britain and Poland. For this red line to be seriously crossed, the number of new tanks will have to be at least 250.

Germany’s Crucial Role

Second only to Ukraine, the large country most damaged by the war is Germany. So far, Germany has succumbed to US and Eastern European pressure to contribute arms to Ukraine.

But Germany had been eager to turn on the tap of the new Russian-German Nordstream II pipeline to import even more inexpensive Russian gas. Germany refused to say it would not open the tap, and that threatened what the US would not permit.  So, in my opinion, the US solved the dispute by demolishing part of the pipeline underwater. Because Germany has been supporting Ukraine, Russia has cut off all gas, and Germany is forced to import US liquified natural gas at three times the price of the Russian gas. This makes German machine, machine tool, and auto and truck production relatively uncompetitive. Furthermore, Asia was on track to take half of these German exports, and now overland routes to these markets are largely severed.

The price Germany is paying for the war is so high—and its reluctance to be perceived as leading major military operations in Europe so strong (coming off the shame of its role in World War II)—that until January 23, 2023 it refused to permit Poland to send 14 of its German Leopard II main battle tanks to Ukraine, and refused to send some of its own Leopards unless the US sent Abrams main battle tanks.

However, US and East European pressure has been so strong, that by January 25th, Germany had permitted any NATO country to send some of the 2000 Leopard IIs scattered around Europe, and had agreed to send 14 itself, because the US had committed to send 31 Abrams tanks. Along with the 14 Chieftain tanks the UK committed, that makes a total of 59 committed in January. More will certainly follow, but the main battle tank red line won’t be passed until the 59 grow to at least 250.  However, it would take until the summer of 2023 to get 250 main battle tanks to the front lines, with trained crews.  Even then, these 3 different tanks require different sets of ammunition, parts, and maintenance training, creating a logistical nightmare.

These tanks will make easy targets, unless the numbers of Raytheon air-defense missiles is at least tripled. So the main battle tank and air-defense red lines are matched—the tank red line isn’t crossed unless there is effective wide-area air defense to protect the tanks.

At this point, I think the US is so committed to weakening Russia that, somehow, it will assure that a significant number of tanks and air-defense systems get to Ukraine. If they arrive, many systems will be sent from European countries, and replaced by the US. The US is already replacing the 240 aging tanks Poland sent in April, with new Abrams main battle tanks, and has committed to send Poland an additional 250.

If the US and NATO allies don’t provide 250-300 main battle tanks and far more air-defense systems, there will be little option but to negotiate an end to the conflict, because Russia will accomplish enough of its goals of demilitarization and denazification, and could successfully demand a neutral Ukraine. If the US and NATO provide enough tanks, air-defense, training and ammo to effect a stalemate, that’s where things will end up—an unended war, like that of North and South Korea. If either side goes beyond that stalemate, nuclear Armageddon will be just around the corner.

The increasing threat of careening down the slope to nuclear war demands that peace activists around the world restrain this ongoing escalation, and demand a negotiated settlement.

The second article in this series – On the Road to Armageddon – will appear in the next issue of MAPA’s Peace Advocate in February.

Richard Krushnic is a Massachusetts Peace Action researcher and activist, is working to create a Massachusetts Public Bank, is retired from public financing of community economic development, and does community development projects in Nicaragua.