Poland’s Duda promises Ukraine Leopard tanks, Russia appoints Gerasimov as top general

Poland’s Duda promises Ukraine Leopard tanks, Russia appoints Gerasimov as top general
Polish president Andrzej Duda received a rockstar's reception from locals during a visit to Lviv, where he promised to send Ukraine the advanced Leopard tanks, but Berlin still has to give its permission. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews January 12, 2023

Poland's President, Andrzej Duda, announced that Poland is ready to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine during a visit to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on January 11.

Duda said: "A company of Leopard tanks for Ukraine will be transferred" within the framework of an international coalition, Duda said at a press conference in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, according to a tweet by the Polish presidency.

If the promise is fulfilled, the arrival of the modern German-made main battle tanks would represent a major escalation in the war in Ukraine. Nato has been very reluctant to send Ukraine offensive weapons, despite repeated requests from Kyiv, out of fear of sparking a direct retaliation by Russia against Nato allies.

So far the West has sent Ukraine mainly defensive weapons such as tank-busting Javelin missiles and more recently two batteries of the US-made surface-to-air anti-missile Patriot system. However, it has shied away from supplying tanks and fighter jets, which are offensive in nature.

Supplying offensive weapons also plays to Moscow’s propaganda line that Russia is fighting a proxy war against Nato and undermines the Western line that it is only helping Ukraine defend itself against Russian forces, as tanks are an offensive weapon and could be used to attack Russian positions.

Duda was in Ukraine as part of a Lublin Triangle meeting together with his Ukrainian and Lithuanian counterparts. Emerging onto the streets of Lviv, Duda received a rock star’s reception from local residents, grateful for Poland’s strong support of Ukraine during the war.

It remains unclear if Poland has decided to act unilaterally, or if it has sought and received permission from Germany to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine. Poland has 126 Leopard 2A4 tanks and 105 Leopard 2A5 tanks in service with its armed forces, but under the terms of the deal Poland has to ask Germany’s permission to deploy them abroad, something that Berlin has been very reluctant to do.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz repeated earlier statements this week saying that Germany will not send any Leopard tanks to Ukraine this year.

In Lviv, Duda added that he is “counting on other countries to contribute to deliveries”, as there are a number of formal conditions that need to be met, suggesting that German permission has not been granted and Poland is hoping other EU members will help lobby Berlin to change its mind.

"All Nato countries must support Ukraine. We see this war with our own eyes. Ukraine will not defend itself without our support," Duda said.

The Ukrainian, Polish and Lithuanian leaders signed a joint declaration at the end of the second summit of the Lublin Triangle.

"The Joint Declaration is the result of the negotiations. It reflects the key political, humanitarian and other conclusions of today's meeting," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said at a joint press conference, according to a statement by the Ukrainian presidency.

The declaration confirmed the “historical ties” between the three countries, in addition to defining the priorities of the Lublin Triangle, particularly within Ukraine’s efforts to acquire full membership in the EU and Nato.

“The document noted the intention of Lithuania and Poland to continue providing powerful military, technical, defence, humanitarian and other support to Ukraine,” the declaration said, adding that it also expressed support for the ten-point Peace Formula summit to “consolidate international support for the peace plan presented” by Zelenskiy.

The declaration also highlighted Poland and Lithuania’s support for Ukrainian accession to the EU and Nato “as soon as the conditions allow it”.

Reluctant partners 

As reported by bne IntelliNews, the West has been steadily increasing the weight and power of the materiel it has been sending Ukraine and a number of countries recently agreed to send “light tanks” and armoured vehicles to Kyiv as the taboo on sending heavy weapons slowly crumbles.

Zelenskiy, applauded Duda’s announcement but said that he was expecting "a common decision" involving other countries willing to send the advanced Leopard battle tanks.

"One state alone cannot help us," Zelensky said, adding that he expects a positive decision from another state to supply Ukraine with modern Western-style tanks, but did not name the country, obviously alluding to Germany.

At the same press conference, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda announced that his country would send anti-aircraft systems and ammunition to Ukraine.

Scholz remains committed to supporting Ukraine and also announced last week that Germany will supply Marder infantry fighting vehicles and a second battery of Patriot air defence system to Ukraine, in a major display of support. However, he has yet to succumb to pressure and agree to the delivery of Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who was also in Lviv, said that Germany's refusal to send battle tanks was costing lives. He added that "the longer it takes to make the decision, the more people will die".

Kuleba said he believed it was only a matter of time before Germany would agree to send the tanks. "Even if Germany has certain rational arguments for not doing it, Germany will still do it at a later date," he said in an interview with the ARD broadcaster. "First they say no, then they defend their decision fiercely, only to say yes in the end," he said. 

Germany has been very reluctant to send Ukraine its Leopard tanks for fear of provoking a wider conflict between Russia and Nato members. 

Bakhmut and Soledar

The recent talk of supplying Ukraine comes as its Western allies hope to break the stalemate in the fighting of the last two months. Currently the epicentre of the war is the major clash concentrated around the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar in the Donbas region, where neither side has made much progress.

The Kremlin, desperate for a battlefield victory to shore up its war propaganda and support for the war at home, has thrown significant resources into the assault on the salt-mining town of Soledar that has minor strategic value. The fighting there has been led by the Private Military Company Wagner, led by the personal ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Evgeny Prigozhin, who has been playing an increasingly important role in Russia’s military struggle in recent months.

Russian forces claimed to have captured Soledar, to the north of Bakhmut, on January 11, in an attempt to flank Bakhmut, where fighting has been going on for months. However, Kyiv denied the that the town was under Russian control on the same day and a US military spokesman says the situation remains “fluid.” Social media carried satellite pictures of the town that show it almost completely destroyed.

Russia appears to be making some progress in the battle, but it has only managed to advance a few kilometres in months of fighting at a very high cost. Social media has carried pictures reportedly showing the battlefield strewn with dead Russian soldiers that are impossible to verify.

Analysts are unanimous in predicting a major Russian counter-offensive sometime between now and the spring. Of the 300,000 “mobiki” of fresh recruits mobilised in September, about half have been kept in reserve and and are currently being trained in preparation, say analysts.

In another sign of the coming assault, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sacked General Sergey Sorovikin as head of the military campaign after only three months on the job and replaced him with the long-serving General Valery Gerasimov as chief of the general staff on January 11. Surovikin is to remain as Gerasimov's deputy, the Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement.

Commenting on the change, security analyst Mark Galeotti said that Gerasimov’s appointment is significant: the new role is “the most poisoned of chalices”, as the fate of the invasion now rests on his shoulders (while Putin likely clings to “unrealistic expectations.)

“Gerasimov is hanging by a thread.” It’s unlikely that Putin has set him up to fail deliberately, but the general “needs some kind of win” or his career will end very poorly, according to Galeotti. 

"In the spring, the military will throw its remaining 150,000 draftees into a new offensive, which will make a difference on the battlefield but probably not enough to satisfy Putin. Russia might deploy its conscripts too. Kyiv will also mount its own spring offensive," Galeotti added. 

The rapid turnover in commanders appears to reflect the Kremlin's dissatisfaction with multiple setbacks on the battlefield and failure to secure victory in a campaign that the Kremlin had expected to be over in a matter of weeks. The Defence Ministry said that the move had come in response to an enlargement of the scope of its "special military operations" in Ukraine.

"The increase in the level of leadership of the special operation is linked to the expansion of the scale of the tasks at hand and the need to organise closer interaction between troops," the ministry said.