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If supplied to Kiev, Leopard tanks to put Russia, NATO on brink of clash — analysts

MOSCOW, January 23. /TASS/. Western countries may start delivering Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine by the spring, which in all likelihood will lead Russia and NATO to teeter on the brink of a direct conflict, polled specialists in the field of international relations told TASS on Monday.

As Fyodor Lukyanov, the research director of the Valdai International Discussion Club, remarked, NATO is now entering the most critical phase regarding the possibility of supplying Leopards to Ukraine. "Most likely, they will ‘push through’ the decision to provide the tanks, but then the alliance will have to walk a tightrope," he believes. In this case, Russia will not only threaten to retaliate, but actually do so, he forecasts. "Strikes on supply routes and warehouses will follow. If we continue to condone such supplies, then the last fears in the West will disappear: what’s the point of being cautious, if Russia does not retaliate?"

In a number of countries, like Poland, the Baltic states, Britain and the US, Lukyanov sees a clear trend towards escalation. At the same time, Washington, he says, "is happy to delegate the right to participate in the escalation to its European allies, in particular Germany."

Germany, in turn, has been trying to maneuver with regard to the supply of tanks to Ukraine and, for a number of reasons, it is afraid of sending heavy offensive weapons to Kiev directly, Lukyanov noted. "But I think it's a matter of time," he continued. "Today it's hard to imagine that Germany will be adamant and refuse to do it, although for now it is trying to maneuver." The expert also drew attention to reports that Germany could supply Leopards to Ukraine only if the United States sent its Abrams tanks. In this way, Berlin tries to "share responsibility" with the US.

Springtime deliveries and red lines

The program director of the Valdai discussion club, MGIMO university professor Oleg Barabanov, believes that the EU’s decision in favor of supplying tanks to Ukraine will be made in the near future, despite existing disagreements on this issue among European countries.

"It seems to me that one way or another this decision will be adopted. We already see Germany drifting towards giving the go-ahead to the supply of some obsolete tanks, used mostly for training. Clearly, no one wants to be the first to take responsibility, but someway, somehow, by the spring, everything will be settled, in my opinion," he said.

At the same time, the expert stressed that Poland will cross another red line, if it delivers the German Leopard tanks it has at its disposal to Ukraine.

A matter of tactics, not strategy

According to Andrey Kortunov, the general director of the Russian International Affairs Council, it is currently difficult for Germany to cross the line and dispatch Leopards to Kiev, because symbolically this would have a negative effect on Berlin. "The very idea of German tanks fighting in Donbass does not look very good for Germany," he noted.

Kortunov believes that the issue of sending Leopards to Ukraine for Germany was more of a tactical issue, rather than a strategic one, and it would not change Berlin's stance on further assistance to Ukraine. "If Germany is in no hurry to provide some specific type of weapons, this does not mean that there is a fundamental split between Berlin and Washington in their vision of the conflict and of the desired results of the collision," Kortunov explained.

"Until now, the equipment that went from Europe to Ukraine was Soviet-made. The Leopard is not a new tank, but it will signify the crossing of a certain line. There will begin supplies of military hardware in service with NATO countries. In light of all these circumstances, Germany's restraint is easy to understand," Kortunov added.

On the supply of Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Sunday that Berlin was acting in coordination with its allies on the issue of supplying tanks to Ukraine. On January 20, a regular meeting of defense ministers from about 50 countries was held at the US Ramstein airbase in Germany. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said afterwards that the participants had not yet decided on the supply of Leopards to Ukraine. The meeting agreed on large deliveries of other types of hardware to Kiev, including infantry fighting vehicles, artillery and air defense systems, light tanks and large quantities of various ammunition. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock declared that Berlin would not interfere, if Warsaw supplied its German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Kiev.

On January 18, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, citing sources, reported that Scholz, in a telephone conversation with US President Joe Biden, said Germany would agree to allow the supply of Leopard 2 tanks to Kiev only on the condition that the United States, for its part, provided Ukraine with Abrams tanks. Later, the German government’s spokesperson denied this, noting that the government knew nothing of any official requests for the re-export of German tanks to Ukraine.