Digging in for the long haul in Ukraine: the Army of the East and the Army of the West


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The past few weeks have witnessed a frenzy of activity when it comes to arming Ukraine. Much of the media attention has focused on whether Germany would send Leopard 2 tanks to help Kyiv withstand any further onslaught by Russia and perhaps itself go on the offensive when the winter snows melt.

In many respects, Germany couldn’t help being in the spotlight and coming under massive political pressure from its allies on both sides of the Atlantic. The Leopard 2 is seen by NATO military planners as the best option to strengthen Ukraine’s forces at this stage of the war. There are over 2,000 of them in service in 20 Western countries. Germany operates 350 of these tanks, which were first introduced in the 1970s but upgraded several times since. Other allies have fewer but several Leopards in storage. So the Leopard’s relatively easy availability made it by far the best option to meet Ukraine’s request for 300 modern, Western tanks in a short timeframe. If each of the Leopard 2 operating countries supplies a company of 12 to 14 tanks from its frontline or reserves, the requested 300 can be filled without any individual contributing country stripping vital capabilities out of its force posture. Moreover, the Leopard 2 has a powerful 130mm gun and it was built for Bundeswehr conscripts to be able to master with rapid training back in the days when NATO was defending the Fulda Gap against the Warsaw Pact. All tanks burn up an enormous amount of fuel but the Leopard 2 is significantly more economical than the US M1 Abrams tank, which runs on kerosene turbines.

So, Germany held the key to unlocking supplies of the Leopards to Ukraine. Not only because of its own stocks but also because Berlin has to approve the re-export licenses that allow other countries that have bought or are leasing these Leopards 2 tanks to transfer them to Kyiv. Faced with Berlin’s hesitations, the Polish government threatened to go ahead and send 14 of its Leopard 2 tanks in any case. But everyone has an interest in obeying the rules governing arms exports and technology transfer, and Germany could have retaliated by denying spare parts, maintenance or upgrade packages to those countries that did not submit formal requests to re-export German-made weapons. Moreover, the Leopard tanks are made by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, and contracts from the German government are vital to enable this defence contractor to restart its Leopard 2 production line in view of the need to rapidly manufacture spare parts, produce training simulators and quickly make new tanks as the Bundeswehr and other NATO armies seek to replace what they have given or been instructed to give to Kyiv. This concern regarding a capability gap does not only apply to the Bundeswehr. The day after the United Kingdom announced that it was giving 14 Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, a memo written by the head of the army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, appeared in the press. In it, Sir Patrick expressed his worry regarding the impact of the Challenger 2 transfer on the army’s fighting capability and called for the immediate acquisition of new tanks, including the next-generation Challenger 3.

Yet, the German decision was significant for other reasons. At the beginning of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Chancellor Scholz gave a speech to the Bundestag announcing a large increase in the German defence budget and his government’s commitment to work towards the NATO target of 2% of GDP devoted to defence. He also spoke of a Zeitenwende and the need to adjust Germany’s foreign and security policies to a harsher and more dangerous geopolitical paradigm. Implementing the Zeitenwende in practice has proven much more difficult. Germany has had to painfully wean itself off from cheap Russian oil and gas. It has had to come to grips with the sorry state of the Bundeswehr with its ageing equipment and deployability problems. German public opinion remains fairly evenly split on the merits of transferring weapons to Ukraine – even after the well-publicised escalation, destruction of civilian infrastructure and atrocities inflicted on the country by the Kremlin. Many Germans believe that sending weapons into a war zone is intrinsically bad and, after the disaster of World War Two, they are reluctant to see German-made tanks once again firing at Russian tanks.

What explains the victory of one side over the other is industrial mobilisation, quantity as well as quality

Consequently, Chancellor Scholz has moved cautiously, ensuring that Germany is not out in front on the weapons transfers and that Berlin is part of a coalition with several other allies doing the same thing, hence the importance of the Biden administration agreeing to send a company of 31 US M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine. The Pentagon was opposed to this move, arguing that the Abrams would be more difficult for the Ukrainians to operate and complicate the management of fuel, logistics and training supply chains. But wars are about political as well as military imperatives, so sending some Abrams tanks is a price worth paying to get the Germans over the line and help Scholz escape charges that Germany itself is escalating or prolonging the conflict. If the Zeitenwende means that the Germans will go slowly, deliberate at length and need maximum political cover, but make the brave decision in the end, the allies can probably live with that for the time being.

To be fair to Germany, its contributions to Ukraine are seen as an important bellwether of the strength of the Western commitment, precisely because Germany is doing so much. According to a report released by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy this week, Germany is in second position after the US. That is not to detract from the stepped-up efforts that other allies are making. The Netherlands, Finland, Spain, Portugal and Norway have all indicated that they are prepared to send Leopards. The Dutch also announced the sending of a Patriot anti-missile battery. Sweden said it would backfill weapons transfers from Finland. Denmark said that it would transfer 19 Caesar artillery systems recently procured from France. And France announced the sending of AMX-10 RC armoured personnel carriers and hinted that its Leclerc tanks might also be on offer down the line. These new contributions were made at last week’s gathering of 50 countries in the Ukraine Defence Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base. Yet, the disappointment that the new German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius was there and then unable to announce the sending of the Leopards disguised the fact that Germany was also to the fore. It committed 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles and Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzers to Kyiv together with a Patriot anti-missile battery. This is without mentioning all the humanitarian, economic and financial support that Berlin has given to President Zelensky’s government.

The media have focused on the Leopard 2s as a potential war winner or game changer. Yet historians of war know well that one single weapon almost never defines the outcome of a conflict. In World War Two, the Allies put their faith in strategic bombers, bouncing bombs and battleships. The Germans invested in submarines, jet aircraft and V2 rockets, yet none of these proved decisive in turning the tide, often because they were used too late, in insufficient quantities or in the wrong way. The US used the atomic bomb twice against Japan – when that country was already defeated – more to hasten the war’s end than to change its outcome. What explains the victory of one side over the other is industrial mobilisation, quantity as well as quality, the ability to coordinate and integrate military capabilities in the most effective way and sheer perseverance and staying power.

The West is now building an entirely new army for Ukraine by stripping its own military forces

Certainly, the introduction of the Leopard 2s, if they can reach Ukraine quickly enough and in sufficient quantities, will help enormously. They can protect Ukrainian soldiers who have been dying in large numbers in the recent fighting around Bakhmut and Soledar, help blunt the recent Russian advances and enable the Ukrainians to punch through the fortified positions that the Russians are constructing in the Donbas or south of Kherson. Yet to be fully effective tanks have to be part of a combined arms operation in which other significant capabilities play their role as well. Tanks are of limited use without artillery to soften up positions, counter-battery radars and anti-tank weapons, armoured personnel carriers to quickly transport troops to seize territory, and air defence and air superiority. It is usually the side that integrates these capabilities to the best effect and with the best tactics that wins the battles.

In this respect, last week brought more good news for Ukraine in its strategy to push the Russian army back and ultimately regain all of its occupied territories. The Ramstein meeting gave Kyiv many of these other complementary systems that it will need to sustain an offensive for more than a few days and achieve strategic rather than merely tactical gains. The US announced a new defence package worth $2.5bn. This brings the amount that Washington has spent on weapons transfers to Ukraine thus far to $27bn. The package included 109 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and 90 Stryker armoured personnel carriers, plus Humvee armoured vehicles, more missiles for the HIMARS long-range artillery system, as well as a US Patriot battery. A range of tracked artillery, air defence systems and 600 British Brimstone anti-tank missiles were also on the list, together with hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. The US even provided money to upgrade a number of old T72 tanks, drawing on the remaining stocks in the NATO countries. Poland also announced that it still had some T72s to hand over and that it would begin training Ukrainian tank crews immediately on the Leopard 2 in anticipation of a favourable decision by Germany on the transfers. Finland followed suit. In addition to its Challenger tanks, the UK also pledged its modern AS 90 artillery system. Beyond the NATO area, Morocco said that it would send 20 of its T72 tanks upgraded by the Czech Republic.

What all this means is that the West is now building an entirely new army for Ukraine by stripping its own military forces and raiding its surplus stocks of weapons, spare parts and equipment. Just ahead of the Ramstein meeting, there was a meeting of NATO Chiefs of Defence in Brussels from which it emerged that 20 out of 30 allies have now depleted their stockpiles of the kind of weapons and equipment that Ukraine prioritises. To the extent that the allies see the defence of Ukraine as a core part of their own future collective defence and deterrence, this may well be a good investment and a risk worth taking. After all, if Ukraine succeeds in pushing the Russian forces back east and mauls the Russian army so badly that it will take years to rebuild, it will render NATO a considerable service. Yet the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Admiral Rob Bauer, pointed out at the meeting that under any scenario – victory or defeat – Russia is likely to remain a resentful, revisionist adversary of the Western alliance and, despite sanctions, will find the means to reconstitute and modernise its armed forces in such a way as to re-impose pressures on its neighbours and NATO itself. So robbing Peter to pay Paul is not an option for NATO in the long run.

There will be no alternative to building and sustaining this ‘Army of the East’ while NATO builds an ‘Army of the West’

The Western alliance is going to need to generate two armies. One for the long-term defence of Ukraine and other NATO candidate countries in the region such as Georgia; and another to defend its own territory. Of course, there will be differences. The army for the defence of alliance territory will be under NATO command and its members are pledged to come to each other’s defence under Article 5 of the NATO treaty. The one for Ukraine will be in the hands of the Ukrainians but sustained by Western funds and trained and equipped to NATO standards. It will exercise regularly with NATO forces to maintain interoperability and probably be integrated into the alliance’s comprehensive air and sea surveillance, as well as its aircraft and missile defence early warning and response. The Ramstein Ukraine Defence Contact Group will undoubtedly need to remain in existence to match Ukraine’s defence needs to available resources and stocks, to conduct training and to include Ukraine in NATO’s own capabilities development, procurement and weapons life cycle management programmes. If Ukraine does not join NATO soon, the allies will still need to give Kyiv robust security guarantees as a condition of Ukraine being willing to make peace with Moscow. Thus, there will be no alternative to building and sustaining this ‘Army of the East’ while NATO builds an ‘Army of the West’ to defend its greatly extended borders with Russia.

What are the consequences of this two-army challenge?

The first is to get the Ukraine war right as a successful outcome, which is key to everything else. Ukraine has to learn to defend positions without losing so many difficult-to-replace soldiers. Russia may sacrifice far more but its larger pool of conscripts and its use of Chechens and Wagner Group mercenaries means that it will always be able to make up its losses faster than Ukraine. A successful Ukrainian army with its battle-hardened soldiers, including in its reserves and veteran units, is likely to have leadership and cohesion, which is the best basis on which to build a future deterrent force. It will know the Russian way of warfare intimately and will have honed its tactics. A defeated Ukrainian force, by contrast, defending what is left of independent Ukrainian territory and disorganised and demoralised, will need to be rebuilt from scratch. This will be more demanding and more expensive for the Western allies. Its deterrent value vis-à-vis Russia will be far lower.

Thus, the purpose of the Leopard tank transfers and the provision of so much other advanced military equipment to Kyiv is to help Ukraine drive back the Russians quickly while political and public support for Ukraine remains strong. The West has no interest in a long, drawn-out conflict that only increases the destruction of Ukraine’s population, society and infrastructure, while continuing to put the global economy, and energy and food supply chains under enormous strain; this is all without thinking of the pressures on Western defence budgets and funds for humanitarian assistance. Grinding down Russia through further Russian battlefield losses or prolonged sanctions is not adequate compensation for this damage. Consequently, the upcoming spring offensives will be crucial for both Ukraine and NATO in setting the right strategic framework for success. The loss of Crimea, for instance, might be the one factor that could make Putin rethink his approach to the Russian invasion and destabilise his hold on power.

The US army in Europe is training the Ukrainians in combined arms operations

So, all this new equipment needs to reach Ukraine quickly and in sufficient quantities to make an impact. Given its importance, Russia may well attempt to strike the tank, armoured vehicles and artillery transporters as they crisscross Ukraine. Yet, if the Ukrainians can demonstrate that they are using the new equipment to inflict major blows on the Russian forces, those forces might begin to disintegrate with Russian soldiers deserting in large numbers to the other side or Russian men refusing to be conscripted into the army. This is a reason why the Pentagon has been advising Kyiv and consulting closely regarding Ukraine’s next move. Continuing to pour resources and lose soldiers in the meat grinder operations around Bakhmut and Soledar makes little sense as these two towns are not of decisive strategic value. There is no shame in a tactical retreat to conserve a force for a more important battle, even if Moscow will proclaim a prestige victory. Instead, the US has advised Kyiv to focus on the south-east region near Kherson, where the Russian forces are more thinly spread and where a breakthrough would give access to the Black Sea coast. Meanwhile, Russia is conducting land and air exercises with Belarus and making noises to the effect that it might try once again to attack Kyiv from the north and drag Belarus into the conflict. So, the new equipment has to help Ukraine parry Russia’s diversionary tactics, while supporting Ukraine’s own offensive operations. Again, this argues for quantity as well as quality. As Stalin once said: “quantity has a quality all of its own.”

This makes it important too that Ukraine’s supporters organise themselves to sustain the equipment that they are sending east. Tanks and armoured personnel carriers need a lot of fuel and maintenance. Many Leopard 2s in Europe have been mothballed or cannibalised for spare parts like those in Spain which are older generation and need to be repaired and refitted before they can re-enter service. There is also the requirement to provide large amounts of 130mm shells for the Leopard’s gun. The UK and Estonia, backed by Poland, held a meeting of 15 defence ministers in Tallinn last week to form a consortium to help Kyiv manage the training and the critical supply chains. By pooling their resources and re-opening repair shops and ammunition production factories, they can help Ukraine to keep as much of its armour for as long as possible in the field. Meanwhile, the US army in Europe – EUCOM – is training the Ukrainians in combined arms operations and live fires at its Grafenwoehr training range in Germany.

At some point in the future, the Western allies will have to decide what they are going to do with all the thousands of items of military equipment that they have given to Kyiv. Post-conflict zones are awash with weapons from rifles to tanks and artillery. These weapons can end up on the black market or fall into the wrong hands. So, the supplier countries need a database and an effective registration and verification system so that they can track the weapons and prevent illicit sales or transfers. This will require also establishing an office within the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence which can assume accountability for tracking and reporting on the location and status of the larger items of equipment. Ukraine will need to have some of the strictest licensing and export control regulations in the world. Will the allies allow Ukraine to keep all the weapons or will they want to get many of them back, particularly the more expensive and sophisticated items such as HIMARS, AS 90 or Caesar artillery systems, Patriot anti-missile batteries, IRIS T air defence missiles or Switchblade armed drones? Given NATO’s own pressing need to plug its capability gaps as it enhances its forward presence in eastern Europe – the Army of the West – it will be tempting to do precisely this.

Waiting years for equipment to arrive in small batches will no longer be possible for neither Ukraine nor NATO’s armies

However, at the end of the war, much of this equipment will have been destroyed or damaged and, as mentioned earlier, Ukraine is still going to need it for its future deterrent force. Will the Western allies ask Ukraine to pay post facto for the equipment or at least for its repair and for future supplies of spare parts and ammunition? What seems reasonably clear is that NATO will have to fund replacements for most of the equipment it will have transferred to Kyiv. It will need to restart major industrial production lines by giving long-term contracts to companies, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, Rheinmetall, British Aerospace, Dassault and Leonardo. Those companies will need to re-install high-technology production lines, acquire raw materials, particularly rare earth, precious metals, electronics and microprocessors, and hire a skilled workforce to manufacture at scale.

Waiting years for equipment to arrive in small batches will no longer be possible for neither Ukraine nor NATO’s armies. That is why speaking in Berlin recently the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, indicated that the alliance’s defence budgets would need to go up still further. Looking ahead to NATO’s next summit in Vilnius in July, he suggested that the benchmark of 2% of GDP to be spent on defence – a target that the majority of the allies still haven’t reached – would need to be revised when NATO’s current Defence Investment Pledge expires in 2024. Two percent would be a minimum rather than a ceiling figure. President Macron responded in a fashion to this appeal last week when he spoke to French servicemen and women at Mont de Marsan and announced an increase in the French defence budget by a third in the 2025-2030 French military programmation law. Let’s see how many other allies are willing and able to do the same.

Thirty years ago when the Cold War ended, Der Spiegel ran a cover story proclaiming that Germany no longer needed the Bundeswehr. Peace had broken out and reaping the peace dividend was on everyone’s lips. The difficulty of supplying armour to Ukraine today is compounded by the fact that back in the early 1990s Germany reduced its tank force from 3,300 to 350, and the Netherlands sold off its entire tank holdings of 700 tanks to countries in Latin America. Yet 30 years on, instead of managing a small, largely professional army, mainly designed for interventions and peacekeeping missions in the Balkans or Afghanistan, the alliance is looking to increase its rapid response troops from 40,000 to 300,000. The challenge for NATO and possibly for decades to come will be not to develop and maintain one large army of hundreds of thousands of mobilisable troops and heavy equipment but two simultaneously: an Army of the East and an Army of theWest. For those with a historical mindset, it is a little reminiscent of the Roman Empire with its Army of the North pushing back the German tribes while the Army of the South kept the peace in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Holy Land in the first centuries AD. It is not what we wished for as just a few years back we waved goodbye to US tanks departing from Wilhelmshaven or Canadian CF-18 fighter jets returning home from Lahr. Yet for better or for worse, that is now our reality and we need to face up to it. 

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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