Russia says the delivery of NATO battle tanks to Ukraine is evidence of “direct and growing” US and European involvement in the war, with one analyst suggesting supplying nations could become potential targets.
The comments come after the United States and Germany on Wednesday said they would arm Ukraine with dozens of heavy tanks in its fight against Russian forces.
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“There are constant statements from European capitals and Washington that the sending of various weapons systems to Ukraine, including tanks, in no way signifies the involvement of these countries or the alliance in hostilities in Ukraine,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday.
“We categorically disagree with this and, in Moscow, everything the alliance and the capitals I mentioned are doing is seen as direct involvement in the conflict. We see that this is growing.”
Kyiv has been seeking hundreds of modern tanks to give its troops the firepower to break Russian defensive lines and reclaim occupied territory in Ukraine’s south and east. Ukraine and Russia have been relying primarily on Soviet-era T-72 tanks.
Russia, which launched the war by invading Ukraine on February 24 last year, has increasingly portrayed the conflict as a confrontation with NATO.
Sergey Karaganov, a former adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said NATO’s weapons deliveries could result in possible military retaliation against the nations supplying them.
“By sending tanks, the NATO countries are becoming more openly involved in the war and that makes them potential targets,” he told Al Jazeera.
’25 years of NATO expansion’
Karaganov also blamed NATO for starting the conflict in Ukraine.
“It is not exactly a Russian-Ukraine war, it is a Russian-Western war. Ukrainians are used as cannon fodder and the leadership is basically marionettes. The West has been advancing and preparing to attack Russia, and Russia decided to strike openly first. But it has been 25 years of NATO expansion.”
Despite the vast arms supplies by the West, Karaganov predicted a Russian victory.
“Eventually, Russia will destroy Ukraine’s military and the country will be fully de-militarised. The neo-Nazi regime there will be finished,” he said.
Experts are divided on how effective Germany’s Leopard 2 and the US Abrams tanks will be against Russian forces.
“The deliveries of Leopard 2 will take our ground forces to a qualitatively new level,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.
Even though Leopard 2s are heavier than Soviet-designed tanks, they have a strong edge in firepower and survivability.
“One Leopard 2 could be equivalent to three or five Russian tanks,” Zhdanov said.
But he noted the promised number of Western tanks represents only the minimum Ukraine needs to repel a likely offensive by Moscow, adding that Russia has thousands of heavy armoured vehicles.
“Kyiv is preparing for a defensive operation and its outcome will determine the future course of the conflict,” Zhdanov said.
Russian military analysts were more sceptical about the NATO tanks, arguing that while Abrams proved clearly superior to older models of Soviet-built ones during the war in Iraq, newer Russian models are more closely matched. They also noted Leopard 2 tanks used by the Turkish army against the Kurds in Syria proved vulnerable to Soviet-era anti-tank weapons.
Andrei Kartapolov, a retired general who heads the defence affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, argued both Leopard 2 and Abrams are inferior to Russia’s T-90, a modified version of the T-72.
The latest Russian tank, the T-14 Armata, has been manufactured only in small numbers and so far has not been used in the war.
The United Kingdom’s defence ministry said in its latest intelligence update that Russia has worked to prepare a small batch of T-14s for deployment in Ukraine, but added it had engine and other problems.
‘Major policy change’
Russian observers, meanwhile, noted it could take a significant time for the Western tanks to reach Ukraine, adding that training Ukrainians to use and properly maintain them would add to the challenge.
“It likely means that the Ukrainian military will probably receive a few small batches of tanks that could be incompatible with each other,” Moscow-based defence analyst Ilya Kramnik said in a commentary.
Putin, his diplomats and military leaders have repeatedly warned the West that supplying long-range weapons capable of striking deep inside Russia would mark a red line and trigger massive retaliation.
Zhdanov argued that by agreeing to arm Ukraine with tanks, the West crossed an important psychological barrier and could eventually provide Kyiv with even more deadly weapons.
“Handing over Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine marks a major change in the policy of Western allies who stopped fearing escalation and are now ready to challenge Russia in the war of resources,” Zhdanov said.
“The West is forced to more widely open the doors to its military arsenals to Ukraine.”
‘Harsh retaliatory action’
Ukrainian officials have long expressed hope of getting US F-16 fighter jets and long-range rockets for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, known as HIMARS, to hit targets far behind the front lines.
Such desires drew ominous remarks from Russian diplomat Konstantin Gavrilov, similar to those voiced earlier by Putin and others.
“If Washington and NATO give Kyiv weapons to strike peaceful cities deep inside Russia and try to seize the territories that constitutionally belong to Russia, it will force Moscow to take harsh retaliatory action,” Gavrilov told a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
“Don’t tell us then that we haven’t warned you.”