Russia fumes over NATO tanks heading to Ukraine, revealing a Kremlin coming to grips with reality

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WASHINGTON — Russia responded with anger and scorn after Germany and the United States revealed that they would be supplying Ukraine with powerful, advanced battle tanks. Moscow invoked history and warned of a broader conflict.

But in doing so, the Kremlin only highlighted its own political and military constraints.

The move was a “blatant provocation,” said Anatoly Antonov, the Russian ambassador to the United States, ahead of President Biden’s announcement on Wednesday afternoon that his administration would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine in the coming weeks and months.

Germany said the same day that it was sending 14 of its Leopard 2 tanks.

President Biden speaks from a podium as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stand behind him..
President Biden announces plans to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine on Wednesday, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin listen. (Susan Walsh/AP)

“A losing scheme,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “We have repeatedly said that these tanks go up in flames like all the other armor,” he boasted, even as Russian forces continued to experience astonishing battlefield losses, including an estimated 123,000 soldiers killed and some 3,100 tanks lost.

“NATO must be destroyed, there are no other options,” mused Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent state television host whose impassioned tirades are valued by the Kremlin for their reach and visceral appeal.

“Of course this is an escalation, of course this is a movement strictly towards nuclear midnight,” said another state television host, Anatoly Kuzichev, referencing the recent decision by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to move its Doomsday Clock to within 90 seconds of an atomic-weapons exchange.

For the most part, however, the warnings emanating from the Kremlin and its top media propagandists had a predictable quality and were tinged with resignation. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top advisers were likely aware, given consistent and escalating NATO support for Ukraine throughout the last 11 months, that it was perhaps only a matter of time before Western heavy armor made its way to Eastern Europe.

The White House appeared unruffled by the threats.

“The propagandists in the Russian media can say what they will,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told Yahoo News at a press briefing at the White House on Wednesday afternoon. Much as Biden had earlier in the day, Kirby argued that the tanks “don’t pose a threat to the Russian homeland. They are designed to help the Ukrainians.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, sitting at a desk, chairs a meeting with members of the Security Council via a video link.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a virtual Security Council meeting on Jan. 20. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin via Reuters)

As Russia groused, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was already asking for fighter jets, confident such demands would at least be registered, if not necessarily honored.

His confidence is not unwarranted. When the war began almost a year ago, American officials made distinctions between supposed “offensive” and “defensive” weapons, fearing that sending the former would trigger a damaging Russian response, perhaps against NATO itself.

Germany was mocked for offering helmets to Ukraine.

But as Russia’s bloody invasion persisted well into 2022, those distinctions began to matter less and less. And as Biden and his European counterparts accepted that Ukraine’s defense would be a prolonged affair, concerns about sending ever more powerful weapons to Ukraine subsided.

Wednesday’s announcement followed a meeting last week between German and U.S. military leaders at Ramstein Air Base that failed to produce an agreement on tanks. At the same time, the Ramstein talks made clear just how close Western leaders were in their view of the conflict.

Once it became clear that an agreement had been struck, Russian media outlets — effectively controlled by the Kremlin — dutifully trotted out experts who said the tanks would not significantly change the course of the war.

The arrival of the West’s most sophisticated armored equipment may not come in time to stop an expected Russian offensive, which may come before spring’s warmer weather turns frozen roads into boggy mud. Nor are the Ukrainians, who have never been shy in asking for help, getting as many tanks as they requested.

A U.S. Army soldier walks near a line of Abrams battle tanks.
Abrams battle tanks in Lithuania in 2019. (Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)

“The Russian military and their thugs are still pretty lethal,” Kirby said Wednesday, referring not only to regular Russian troops, but also to Wagner Group paramilitaries who have made some gains around the city of Bakhmut.

All the same, the U.S. and German tank announcements were a sign that the West was committing to Ukraine’s security in the long term, with the nation becoming a kind of bulwark against the territorial expansion Putin and his pan-Slavic ideologues have envisioned.

“We want to make sure that they have the right capabilities to not only defend themselves against the Russian onslaught,” a senior administration official said on Wednesday, but also “the ability to retake and to reclaim their sovereign territory,” including the territory Russia conquered in 2014, during the first stage of its incursion into Ukraine.

Nor are Germany and the United States alone in their commitment, even if the sophistication of the two nations’ tanks has dominated media coverage. France had already committed to sending its AMX-10 RC tanks; Great Britain said it was sending Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine earlier this month. With so many nations now putting heavy armor into play, Russia finds itself facing a united NATO resistance without any major gaps or disagreements to exploit.

The return of German tanks to Eastern European soil is proving especially galling to Russians, given the heroic defeat of the Nazis during World War II. Among the Soviet Union’s key victories during that conflict was the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943, the largest tank battle in world history.

A Leopard 2 tank fires during a military drill.
A Leopard 2 tank fires during a military drill in Latvia in September 2022. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

Though little known in the West, the battle retains a mythic status in the collective Russian memory. A local official in southern Russia allegedly used 2.2 million rubles (about $31,700) to stage a re-creation of the battle in a university gym late last year.

Kremlin propagandist and RT editor Margarita Simonyan joked on Twitter that come summer, Germany would be sending “gas chambers” to Ukraine, a reference to the Holocaust.

Solovyov, meanwhile, said that “the Fourth Reich has declared war on Russia,” alluding to the Third Reich, as Germany under Hitler was known.

While many Russians already seem to believe the Kremlin’s grievance-laden propaganda, Western officials continued to signal that there was a simple, if unlikely, resolution at hand.

“We’d like to see this war end today, and it absolutely could,” Kirby said on Wednesday. “All Putin has to do is pull his troops out of Ukraine and call it a day, and it’s over.”