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Armored vehicle pledge to Ukraine marks a change in the war with Russia

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S., France and Germany all recently announced they will send new armored fighting vehicles to Ukraine. They're not the heavy main battle tanks Kyiv has been asking for. But, as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, what some refer to as, quote, "light tanks" are the first Western-designed vehicles of their kind to be sent. And they mark a change in what the West is willing to provide.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy began a recent nightly address by thanking France for its AMX-10 armored fighting vehicles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: France is taking European defense support for Ukraine to a new level with these light tanks, said Zelenskyy. I thank President Macron for his leadership. The following day, the U.S. and Germany committed to give Ukraine Bradley and Marder armored personnel carriers. Ulrike Franke is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. She focuses on security.

ULRIKE FRANKE: These are important systems insofar as they allow Ukraine to put infantry soldiers closer to the action in a way that's kind of safe and secure for them. It's not quite big combat tanks yet. But it will make a difference for the counter offensive.

BEARDSLEY: Until recently, powerful equipment like this was off the table, says Sylvie Kauffmann, foreign affairs columnist with French newspaper Le Monde.

SYLVIE KAUFFMANN: I think it's a sign that we understand that we have to go all the way with the Ukrainians and try to help them more efficiently to win this war.

BEARDSLEY: President Macron has been criticized for saying that Russian security should be taken into account and for keeping an open line with President Vladimir Putin. But in his New Year's Eve address, Macron left no doubt that France will support Ukrainians until the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Your fight is heroic. And you inspire us, he said. France will be by your side until victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACRON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: For Germany, there's been a psychological barrier to going too far to help Ukraine because of its own past. In World War II, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, killing millions of soldiers and civilians. But the war in Ukraine is changing what Franke calls Germany's anti-military mentality.

FRANKE: We have these rather absurd discussions here in Berlin on, you know, we're only delivering defensive weapons, not offensive ones, only light ones, not heavy ones, only older and not modern Western systems - these kind of, you know, made-up distinctions and definitions and so-called red lines that the government sets.

BEARDSLEY: All three countries' armored fighting vehicles were designed during the Cold War to defeat Soviet defensive positions and hold ground. Leonid Polyakov, a former deputy defense minister of Ukraine, says the West has evolved from giving Ukraine the weapons required not to lose to giving it the weapons it needs to win.

LEONID POLYAKOV: Our partners, they needed some time to come to terms what Ukraine can do, what Ukraine can muster and what Ukraine needs.

BEARDSLEY: Polyakov spent 20 years in the Soviet military. He says, with Ukraine showing it can beat an army that was not long ago considered the world's second most powerful, the West is shifting its priorities.

POLYAKOV: Major powers supporting Ukraine could have decided that it is in their interest to allow Ukraine to move faster because the longer war goes, the more weapons will be required. So maybe time is a factor now, not only unpredictability of Russia.

BEARDSLEY: Analysts say the decision to send armored fighting vehicles could hasten the sending of heavier main battle tanks needed to break through fortified Russian defenses and artillery. Delivering them is something Ukraine's Western allies are already discussing.

FADEL: Eleanor, just one question before you go. What are those discussions now?

BEARDSLEY: Well, you know what, Leila? This week, Poland said it wants to give the Leopard 2 main battle tank to Ukraine. But they're German-designed, so Poland would need Germany's permission. But that could be coming because yesterday, Germany's vice chancellor said Germany should not stand in the way of other countries taking decisions to support Ukraine. Analysts say Britain is also heavily considering sending its Challenger 2 tanks.

And the U.S. is said to be pushing Germany and Britain to approve and send these tanks to Ukraine as soon as possible. A decision on that could be announced as early as next week in a meeting of the contact group, which are Ukraine's allies. In the meantime, yesterday, France's defense minister said his country's armored fighting vehicles will be on the ground within two months, perhaps around the time of expected spring counteroffensives. So Ukraine's foreign minister said that sending these armored vehicles had broken a taboo on providing key weapons to Ukraine. And he might be right.

FADEL: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, thanks for your reporting.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.