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The debate over sending tanks to Ukraine

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As Russia's invasion of Ukraine approaches the one-year mark, NATO allies continue to supply Ukraine with sophisticated Western-made weapons. This week officials in Poland and Britain signaled their interest in sending advanced main battle tanks. Well, NPR's Frank Langfitt has been at NATO headquarters in Brussels this week following this story. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So Western countries have given Ukraine tanks before. What is the significance of these new ones?

LANGFITT: These are much, much better. The Poles - I was speaking to the Polish ambassador today. They're planning to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks. These are more effective, more lethal and better off-road. I was talking to Tomasz Szatkowski. He's the ambassador here. And here's how he described them.

TOMASZ SZATKOWSKI: They're basically better-designed tanks. They are more precise, more mobile. They're also better designed for defensive actions. They were supposed to repel the overwhelming Soviet tank onslaught during the Cold War.

LANGFITT: Now, Mary Louise, Szatkowski says these Leopards - they easily outmatch Russia's second-generation T-72 tanks, which I'm sure people have heard of over the years, and better even than the later model T-90s. There are a couple other points, though. We're only really talking about 14 Leopards. The Polish are concerned about their stocks, and they want to see more NATO allies contribute to this. And the Germans, of course, have to approve the export of the Leopards, but they're expected to do so.

KELLY: OK, so how would these better tanks actually help Ukraine on the battlefield?

LANGFITT: They would probably help a lot. I was in southern Ukraine right before - around the time of the Kherson offensive when it kicked off last year. And there was a commander I was talking to at the time and he said they really need more advanced tanks like this because they provide, obviously, more firepower. And they help protect the infantry as they're trying to get the infantry into the fight to take territory, which, of course, is very difficult and costly. This isn't just about warfare strategy. I mean, analysts told me recently that the Ukrainians suffered really big losses in that push to take the city of Kherson. And so when they have more tanks, they also save more soldiers' lives.

KELLY: How are Western stocks of these weapons holding up?

LANGFITT: Well, the Western stocks, in general, of weapons are not - there're not a lot of them. I mean, Ukrainians have been burning through ammunition at an astonishing rate, and it's understandable. They're in an existential - they see this as an existential threat. But every ambassador I talked to in NATO in the last couple of days, they're all concerned about this. And, you know, this come down to is, you know, the end of the Cold War, factories closed. There was no demand or market for these kind of heavy weapons 'cause nobody here saw a major land war coming. So now, NATO allies, they're meeting with arms makers. I was talking to Julianne Smith. She's America's ambassador to NATO. And she said NATO's really working on weapons procurement planning. This is what she said.

JULIANNE SMITH: So if the NATO alliance says every member of the NATO alliance will be required to have - let's make up a figure - three months of munitions on hand for future contingencies, that then is the signal that the private sector requires to flip the lights back on to a line that had previously been shut down.

KELLY: So, OK, that's NATO countries trying to ramp up supplies for the future. For right now, Frank, are there enough weapons to keep Ukraine in this fight?

LANGFITT: I mean, for now, yes. But I heard worries today that were pretty significant. I talked to one ambassador who was worried that Ukrainians could run low on air defense missiles, which they use to shoot down attack drones and cruise missiles. And they're expensive to make. They take time to make. And it's crucial that the Ukrainians continue to deny Russia's air superiority. Because otherwise, in the long run, Ukrainian tanks, soldiers and even cities could just become sitting ducks.

KELLY: NPR's Frank Langfitt in Brussels, thank you.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.