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Could the decision to send battle tanks to Ukraine shift the tide in the war?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Russia used missiles to attack Ukraine again this morning. Ukrainian officials say warplanes damaged major infrastructure, and at least one person was killed. The attack during rush hour in Ukraine came the morning after the U.S. and Germany promised dozens of battle tanks to help Ukraine fight the Russian invasion. Germany says it will send Leopards, and the U.S. will deliver Abrams tanks, as National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told NPR's Mary Louise Kelly on All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN KIRBY: This decision was really the culmination of weeks of diplomatic conversations about, how do we help Ukraine in the fight that we expect them to be in when the winter fades and spring and summer months come?

FADEL: How effective will those tanks be? Let's ask a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and retired Army Lieutenant General Douglas Lute. Good morning, Ambassador.

DOUGLAS LUTE: Good morning.

FADEL: So will these tanks make a huge difference in this war?

LUTE: Well, the tanks will tip the balance tactically, that is, on the battlefield over time, not immediately, but perhaps in the months ahead. But what they really do, the contribution of the American tanks - those 30 American tanks unlock the contributions of Germany, Poland and other NATO allies. So in a way, the 30 tanks are a down payment for much bigger contributions by others.

FADEL: So it gives cover for Poland and Germany and others to provide the military aid that they are providing.

LUTE: It does just that.

FADEL: Now, this is a big step for Ukraine's allies. Ukraine's been begging for these tanks for months, and it will be more months before they're deployed. Why are the U.S. and Ukraine's European allies going ahead now?

LUTE: Well, I think several things. First of all, the Ukrainians have proven themselves on the battlefield over the last year capable of pressing back against the Russians - not only defending their territory, but actually recovering ground occupied by the Russians. And now they've reached a point where they're up against the hardest parts of the Russian defense on Ukraine, on Ukrainian territory. So in order to deal with those defenses, Ukraine has to develop an offensive capability built around what, in the United States Army, we call a combined arms team. And that's a team that puts together four ingredients - tanks, infantry, artillery and engineers. And so the tanks are a key element of this team.

FADEL: Are they worth, though, the possible Russian reaction? Already this morning we see these attacks in response, possibly.

LUTE: Well, remember that these attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure have been taking place for months...

FADEL: True.

LUTE: ...Before tanks were even in the conversation. So I don't think we should be self-deterred by Russian rhetoric. Look, Russia is responsible for the war in Ukraine, and the United States and the 50-some countries that are...

FADEL: Yeah.

LUTE: ...Joining the United States to push back and to support Ukraine are all acting in accordance with the U.N. charter.

FADEL: Now, Ukraine says its missile defense systems were able to shoot down most of the missiles that Russia fired this morning. But since the beginning of the war, Ukrainians have consistently said the danger is in the sky, and they want things. They have a long wish list, including fighter jets. Will NATO send even more military equipment and possibly consider those jets?

LUTE: I think providing tanks is the next logical step. Tanks were at the top of the Ukrainian request list, but just below tanks are fighter aircraft. And I suspect the conversations are going on now inside the United States government but also among NATO allies about taking the next step, which could well involve high-performance aircraft.

FADEL: Now, we spoke about this a little bit, but Moscow warned that sending these tanks is, quote, "extremely dangerous." What do you take that to mean?

LUTE: Well, they're intended, of course, to be dangerous to the Russian occupiers. But I don't think that there's a rhetoric that we should abide by here. Russia has repeatedly threatened escalation and has been unable or unwilling to do so. The reality is they still occupy sovereign Ukrainian territory.

FADEL: Ambassador Douglas Lute, thank you so much for your time.

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