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Why the US declined to send Ukraine long-range missiles, tanks

US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meet in the Oval Office on December 21, 2022. © Brendan Smialowski, AFP

When President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Washington on Wednesday, the US announced that it would finally be sending Patriot missiles to Ukraine, 300 days into the war. However, the Biden administration declined to give Ukraine ATACM long-range missiles due to wariness about escalation risks, and declined to send US tanks because of operational concerns. Yet analysts warn against overstating the differences between Kyiv and Washington.


The Patriot air defence weaponry was just one of the Christmas gifts Kyiv wants.

“We are grateful for [the US’s] support, but it is not enough,” Zelensky told Ukrainian troops near the frontline at the eastern battleground city Bakhmut on Tuesday. “It is a hint – it is not enough.” 

Top Zelensky advisor Mykhailo Podolyak posted a tweet in early December titled: “My Christmas Wishlist”. In addition to Patriots, Podolyak asked for the US’s ATACM long-range missiles, US Abrams tanks and German Leopard and Marder tanks. 

My Christmas wishlist:

1. Leopards
2. Marders
3. Abrams
4. Patriots

— Михайло Подоляк (@Podolyak_M) December 9, 2022

“Ukraine wants to conduct a large-scale offensive as soon as it can, and that requires a large army corps and lots of protected mobility,” explained Shashank Joshi, defence editor of The Economist. “They don’t have enough to equip the entire corps, as [head of the Ukrainian armed forces] General Valery Zaluzhny told my colleagues at The Economist. So the Ukrainians are very open about the need for more armoured vehicles.” 

Even as things stand, “Russia still has an overwhelming advantage over Ukraine when it comes to long-range artillery and tanks”, noted Michal Baranowski, managing director of Warsaw-based GMF East, part of the German Marshall Fund.  

“There is one aspect of the Ukrainians’ demands that is rather distinct and that’s the ATACMs,” Joshi added. They would like to use these long-range missiles, which could hit targets inside Russia, to “degrade Russian logistics and create the conditions for what we’d call manoeuvre; mobile advance”. So the demands for tanks and ATACMs are “two sides of the same coin; it’s all about setting the stage for offensives”. 

‘Escalation is primary concern’ 

Responding to Ukrainian demands during Zelensky’s visit, Joe Biden was more explicit than ever in refusing to send Kyiv ATACMs, which would be able to strike targets within Russia. The US president warned it risked alienating European NATO members. “They’re not looking to go to war with Russia,” he said. 

“With ATACMs, escalation is the primary concern,” Joshi said. “They could attack quite deep within Russia, and if the Ukrainians were to use them to do so, that could well cause a fissure within NATO about how to respond. There’s a range of European countries, including in southern Europe, that are wary of escalation.” 

Meanwhile US defence officials have argued that Ukraine already has all the tanks it needs and that M1 Abrams are too complicated for the Ukrainian military to operate. 

This is not a diplomatic excuse to paper over worry about escalating the war, Joshi said.

“When it comes to tanks, I don’t think escalation is the primary American concern; instead I think it is really a question of sustainability. New tanks use an awful lot of fuel – Abrams in particular are extremely fuel hungry. Maintenance takes a lot of effort, while spare parts are in huge demand. And Ukraine only has experience of Soviet-era tanks. So pragmatic practical concerns are at the forefront of US calculations here,” Joshi added. 

The dissonance between Washington and Kyiv on this question of arms supplies should not be overplayed, suggested Mark Cancian, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. “It’s only the ATACMs that represent a policy difference,” he put it. 

‘Jarring to German strategic culture’ 

As for the other items on Podolyak’s wish list, Germany has long refused to send Ukraine Leopard and Marder tanks – prompting in September a furious tweet from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. “What is Berlin afraid of that Kyiv is not?” Kuleba railed.  

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is the key figure here. Much has been made of what Germans call the country’s Zeitenwende (turning point) – a pivot away from Berlin’s longstanding emollience towards Moscow. But Scholz has drawn a line at sending tanks – despite pressure within his ruling coalition, with even Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock hinting that he should change course. 

“The Zeitenwende is a process that has started but many people, myself included, think it hasn’t gone far enough,” Baranowski said. “On the one hand, Germany is sending Ukraine anti-aircraft missiles and you couldn’t imagine that even just a few months ago. But on the tank issue, it’s just Scholz who’s holding back on this in Germany; sending tanks has become a symbol of his resistance to pressure.” 

That said, Ukraine is totally dependent on Soviet-era tanks because no Western country has sent Kyiv any Western-designed tanks – not the US, not the UK, the most generous of Western European countries to the Ukrainian war effort. 

Consequently, Scholz declining to give Ukraine tanks is “partly about safety in numbers”, Joshi said. If Germany sent tanks at this stage and “got so far ahead of the Western European consensus, that would be very jarring to German strategic culture”. 

At the same time, Germany has pressing military needs of its own. Berlin has slowly but steadily increased defence spending from an infamously low base. Yet two recent stories suggest more investment is needed.  

Earlier this month, it emerged that not a single one of Germany’s flagship Puma tanks was operational after a training exercise. This came after German media reports that the Bundeswehr only had enough ammunition for two days of intense combat. 

So the Bundeswehr “not being in great shape” provides another explanation for Scholz not sending Kyiv tanks, as Joshi put it. 

Need to be ‘judicious’ 

It is not just the German military which needs to increase production to keep pace with demand. Analysts have long warned that the US has sharply reduced its own weapons supplies by sending so many arms to Ukraine, especially at a time when tight labour markets have made it harder for defence contractors to ramp up production.  

So Western countries are going to have to be “judicious” in their weapons transfers to Ukraine, Joshi said. “Production rates and industrial capacity are going to be significant constraints on the rate of arms donations to Ukraine over the course of 2023, although of course Russia too has significant supply constraint problem, especially when it comes to things like ammunition and artillery shells.” 

In this context, some observers worry that the next House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s repeated vow not to give Ukraine a “blank cheque” will manifest itself as Washington dialling down its support for Kyiv when McCarthy’s Republicans take charge of the chamber in January. 

Nevertheless, Zelensky’s visit may well have lessened scepticism within the GOP about arms transfers to Ukraine.

“It was very successful,” Cancian suggested. “When you looked at the reaction of Congress, you could see only a handful of Republicans showing opposition. Zelensky hit all the right notes in his speech, especially when it came to assuring Americans that the money was being spent responsibly.” 

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

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