Western tanks seen key to Ukraine battlefield breakthrough

With its pledge of light tank deliveries for Ukraine, France is betting Kyiv is capable of using modern Western armoured vehicles to push forward against Russian invaders.

President Emmanuel Macron said Wednesday that Paris would hand over French-built AMX-10 RC light tanks to Ukraine, a step forward from tank deliveries to date from Ukraine's allies which have mostly been Soviet-era leftovers.

"The decision of President @EmmanuelMacron is another step that will bring our victory closer," Ukrainian's defence ministry wrote on Twitter.

"Especially when the AMX-10 RCs are joined by the American and, we believe, German peers".

France's move is "a strong political signal that Western support is continuing, not running out of steam," said Pierre Haroche, lecturer in international security at Queen Mary University in London.

The AMX-10 is a wheeled reconnaissance tank weighing 25 tonnes and armed with a 105mm cannon, developed during the Cold War "to move quickly and exploit potential breakthroughs" in enemy lines, Haroche said.

"By delivering tanks we're showing that we're backing Ukraine to win, investing in their capability to reconquer territory and not just hold the line."

- Pressure on Germany -

But the AMX-10 is not in the same weight class as the main battle tanks Kyiv has been pushing allies to provide, such as the French-made Leclerc, German Leopard 2 or US Abrams.

President Joe Biden this week said Washington may send Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, armed with lighter weapons than the big beasts but able to transport troops safely to where they are needed and support them once they arrive.

Meanwhile Germany has been especially hesitant, delivering powerful mobile artillery and air defences but fearing an escalation with Moscow if its tanks face off directly against their Russian opposite numbers.

Welcoming France's decision on Wednesday, Ukraine's leader Volodymyr Zelensky said, "There is no rational reason why Ukraine has not yet been supplied with Western-style tanks."

"The argument from the chancellor's office that Germany must not go it alone is completely obsolete," agreed Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, head of the defence committee in parliament and a leading member of the FDP, a junior coalition partner to Olaf Scholz's SPD.

Ukraine "must win to defend what are also our freedoms and our values -- and that can't be done without tank support," she added.

Paris' move "will push other partners to breach the taboo of sending heavy armoured vehicles to Ukraine," said Ivan Klyszcz, a researcher at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Estonia.

- 'Heavy attrition' -

Many experts see providing Ukraine with modern tanks as a vital building block in its ability to win against Russia.

"In this war in Ukraine, there's a return to tactical blocking of movement with fire superiority, especially with artillery. That explains the heavy attrition rate for armoured vehicles and the return to fortified positions, the trenches that have blossomed," said Thibault Fouillet, a researcher at France's Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS).

"Even breakthroughs that seem signficiant to us, as in the Kharkiv region, only bring tactical advantages -- the armies advance just a few tens of kilometres -- without making the enemy collapse," he added.

Some experts have questioned how much help the AMX-10 will be to Kyiv given the full range of ex-Soviet heavy armour opposing it.

Modernised Russian tanks like the T-80, T-72 or even the venerable T-62 could make short work of the French vehicles' lighter armour, said Pierre Razoux of the Mediterranean Foundation for Strategic Studies (FMES).

"The light tank can get into position very quickly but if it's hit, it's knocked out," Razoux said.

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