French President Emmanuel Macron has agreed to send “wheeled tanks” to Ukraine, a milestone arms transfer that could set a precedent for other Western states.
“We will receive more armored vehicles, in particular wheeled tanks of French production,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday. “This is what sends a clear signal to all our other partners: there is no rational reason why Ukraine has not yet been supplied with Western-type tanks.”
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Zelensky has campaigned for heavy Western weaponry since the beginning of the war in the face of U.S. and Western European efforts to balance aid to Ukraine against the perceived potential for retaliation from Russia. Those calibrations have led to a refusal to provide Ukraine with Western-made tanks and aircraft, even as NATO’s Central and Eastern European members transfer their legacy Soviet equipment, making Macron’s decision a watershed — even though the vehicles in question are only AMX-10 RC “light tanks” that date from 1981.
“It is the first time that Western-designed tanks are supplied to the Ukrainian armed forces,” a French official said. “Very mobile … perhaps old, but high-performance.”
Macron has drawn criticism throughout the war for providing a relatively small amount of weaponry to Ukraine, while also echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call for security “guarantees to Russia.” Yet Zelensky hailed his latest decision as a breakthrough that could prompt other Western nations to follow suit.
“We must put an end to the Russian aggression this year exactly and not postpone any of the defensive capabilities that can speed up the defeat of the terrorist state,” he said. “Modern Western armored vehicles, Western-type tanks are just one of these key capabilities.”
Western aid to Ukraine has been characterized by a protracted debate about providing Kyiv with heavy weaponry. Shoulder-mounted anti-tank and anti-air missiles proved effective in the initial battle for the capital, but the battles raging in Eastern Ukraine have called for heavier armor and artillery. The United States and the United Kingdom have taken the lead, among NATO’s premier military powers, in providing Ukraine with the largest quantities of weapons, but those high-powered weapons systems have been doled out carefully, in part due to the concerns that too substantial an upgrade to Ukraine’s armaments could spur Russia into an escalatory clash.
“The idea that we would give Ukraine material that is fundamentally different than is already going there would have a prospect of breaking up NATO and breaking up the European Union and the rest of the world,” President Joe Biden said during his press conference with Zelensky last month. “They understand it fully, but they’re not looking to go to war with Russia. They’re not looking for a third World War.”
That statement was delivered as a rebuff to a journalist who suggested the West should “give Ukraine all capabilities it needs and liberate all territories sooner rather than later.” German officials, meanwhile, have justified their refusal to send tanks directly to Ukraine by invoking a consensus of other NATO allies.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in November that the United States has “no objection” to Germany sending tanks to Ukraine. “In fact, we support any country, if it so decides, making those available if we make a determination that that can really help Ukraine and meet a need,” he said.
Zelensky signaled that he will press the rhetorical advantage offered by Macron’s new decision.
“I will continue such diplomatic activity every day — this marathon of negotiations with the leaders of partner states and friends of Ukraine around the world,” he said. “Each of our partners will have very specific information about our defense needs. And we all have the same goal: to put an end to Russian aggression as soon as possible, to restore reliable and lasting peace.”