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EDITORIAL: Tanks for nothing increase Ukraine entanglement

If President Joe Biden has a coherent strategy for ending the Ukraine war, now would be an opportune time to deploy it.

On Wednesday, Mr. Biden announced that the U.S. will provide Ukraine with 31 M1A1 Abrams tanks. That’s the U.S.’ main battle tank, which our country has used for four decades. In tandem with Biden’s decision, Germany and other European allies will provide tanks. Politico reported that European countries will send enough for two tank battalions.

This decision is a significant reversal. For months, U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, maintained that the Abrams was too complex to be of much help. It’s not even clear where the tanks are coming from. The U.S. has more than 4,000 of them, but a White House official said there’s not an “excess stock,” per AP reporting. The training, which will happen outside Ukraine, will take time too.

U.S. officials have long thought it would be better to send German Leopard 2 tanks, which are easier to use. There are around 2,000 of the tanks throughout Europe. Perhaps Mr. Biden’s decision is more about providing political cover for Germany and other countries to send those vehicles.

This is a significant shift in posture. Western officials have long provided Ukraine with defensive weapons, especially as the country showed incredible resolve in resisting the invasion. But they’ve been slower to provide offensive weapons, like modern tanks.

That reserve was an appropriate display of restraint given the situation. Russia’s inability to conquer Ukraine shows it’s no longer the dominant military power it once was. That’s worth celebrating. But Russia still has nuclear weapons and is run by a de facto dictator.

Sending tanks makes this look much more like a proxy war. How would Russia respond if Ukraine used those tanks for offensive operations inside Russia? That could have major ramifications for NATO, which has a pledge of collective defense. Providing tanks increases the possibility of regional or global conflict. These decisions aren’t straightforward, and this consideration is a real trade-off.

Further complicating the situation is Ukrainian corruption. This week, nine senior Ukrainian officials lost their positions amid scandals.

One official, who previously worked in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, is being investigated for embezzling millions of dollars in humanitarian aid. Not great.

What’s needed most aren’t tanks but an exit strategy. That probably will require allowing Russia to save face, even as it loses militarily. Perhaps that’s in the works, but Mr. Biden has provided precious little evidence of it so far.

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