When it comes to donating weapons, “if you hear it’s impossible, it means it will be possible in the future,” Oleksii Reznikov said.
Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov attends a meeting.
Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov noted that many of the items once considered off-limits — drones, rockets and artillery — have eventually made it to Kyiv, ina frustrating game of red lines that are later crossed by world governments. | Olivier Matthys/AP Photo
Ukraine’s defense minister is confident that Kyiv will eventually obtain Western tanks and fighter planes to help push Russian forces out of his country, but thinks Washington will have to lead the way before allies will follow.
“I’m really optimistic that Abrams tanks are possible in the future and I am sure that fighter jets like F-16s, F-15s, or Gripen from Sweden will also be possible,” Oleksii Reznikov said in a wide-ranging interview about the state of the war and rebuilding the Ukrainian defense industry.
NATO countries have spent months debating whether to send modern, main battle tanks such as the Leopard from Germany or Abrams from the United States. German officials have so far declined, saying they won’t be the first to send NATO-grade heavy armor over concerns it could be seen as an escalation by Russian President Vladimir Putin. U.S. officials, meanwhile, contend that Abrams tanks are logistically complex fuel guzzlers that would be difficult to sustain on the battlefield in Ukraine.
Reznikov’s optimism persists despite all of the political and logistical challenges in convincing Western countries to supply more modern, NATO-grade weapons to Ukraine. He noted that many of the items once considered off-limits — drones, rockets and artillery — have eventually made it to Kyiv, in a frustrating game of red lines that are later crossed by world governments.
Soon after he was appointed defense minister last November, Reznikov came to Washington and asked for Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, but was told “no, it’s impossible,” he said. “I asked them why. The answer was because it’s forbidden by the law … and political issues. Then in January, a month before the invasion, we got our first package from Lithuania. It was the Stingers, and we got it with permission from the United States. So for me, it’s an example that if you hear it’s impossible, it means it will be possible in the future.”
The same process was repeated with 155mm howitzers and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, which have had a huge effect on the battlefield since arriving over the summer.
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The most important decision of the bunch, in the near-term at least, “should be what kind of main [battle] tank we will have for the armed forces of Ukraine, because we understand that all our partners who have an industry that can produce tanks — like Britain, France and Germany — they will wait for the political decision from the United States,” he said. “After the first Abrams [arrives] I’m sure we will have Leopards, Marders [German infantry fighting vehicles] and other types of heavy armored vehicles like tanks.”
Poland has already donated 250 older Russian tanks to Kyiv, models that Ukrainian tank crews are familiar with. But with Moscow continuing to send its own tanks and armored personnel carriers to the fight, Ukrainian leaders say more modern tanks would be invaluable in pushing the Russians back. Despite the prominence of cruise missiles and drones in this latest phase, the war will continue to be fought on the ground, village to village. And given Russia’s seemingly endless supply of armored personnel carriers, artillery pieces and tanks, Kyiv will continue pressing its case for more armor.
As for fighter jets, preliminary discussions over eventually providing Ukraine with F-16s continue, though there is no sense among officials in Washington that it would happen in the thick of the fight as it is being waged today due to the logistics of training Ukrainian pilots and sending the requisite spare parts for sophisticated aircraft.
More optimism over weapons
Ukraine’s use of Western weapons is not only helping push Russian troops from occupied territory, but it’s also a way for countries to test their equipment against a Russian army that until recently was considered second only to the United States.
“We have a combat testing field in Ukraine during this war,” Reznikov said. “I think that all [countries] see how we use these systems, you know that we have eight different 155mm artillery systems in the field … so it’s like a competition between systems” to see which proves most effective.
The latest test of some of those systems is pitting air defenses against Russian cruise missiles and Iranian drones, which Russia is using to terrorize civilians and strike infrastructure.
“The entire civilized world should be trying to find the solution of how to jam them, or how to hit them, because it’s a real threat for the entire world because they will use this equipment against” Western targets one day, he said. “They will use them because it’s a very efficient [drone], and I think it’s a real challenge” for Europe and NATO.