Why tanks will be decisive in the next battle for Ukraine

David A. Andelman

Going into the war in Ukraine a year ago, conventional wisdom suggested that tanks had seen the best of their days – outflanked and vulnerable to drones or fire-and-forget missiles. Conventional wisdom is clearly wrong. It’s becoming quite apparent that armored dominance on a battlefield like Ukraine could turn the tide, dramatically.
After weeks of tense deliberation, Germany on Wednesday announced it would be sending Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine – a move matched by the US, which is providing its own M1 Abrams. Other European nations have indicated they will follow suit. But the West needs to get the latest generation of tanks in place quickly. The clock is ticking loudly.
“What Russia is trying to do now is regroup,” former Ukraine defense minister Andrii Zahorodniuk told me in a telephone interview from Kyiv, shortly after Germany’s tank announcement. “They are trying to take their time and call another mobilization,” added Zahorodniuk, who served as minister from 2019 to 2020, and is now co-founder of the security think tank Center for Defense Strategies.
Zahorodniuk said the Russians “will try to create a bigger group, a bigger army and try again. We expect the new offensive in the springtime.” In other words, it’s time for Ukraine to arm up. And as Zahorodniuk and western defense experts believe, tanks will be the decisive arms of choice in the next battle for Ukraine. The world watched in wonder – and with a strong dose of schadenfreude – as Russia’s intended blitzkrieg dash for Kyiv in the first days of the war last February dissolved in disaster.
At the time, satellite imagery of a 40-mile-long armored convoy suggested an all-out assault on Ukraine’s capital was imminent – but then it all but stopped moving. Why? First, it simply ran out of gas. Deeply flawed supply systems left bogged-down columns running dry of fuel and food, according to US defense officials. Then there was the mud. Russian tanks fell victim to the “Rasputitsa,” that in-between period between winter and spring when melting snows turn everything to mud, bogging down some tanks up to their turrets.
They became sitting ducks for Ukrainians to pick off. In the course of this invasion, Russia has lost more than 1,400 battle tanks. Fast forward almost a year later and this time, the Russians are expected to have learned their lesson. “It would be unwise for them to start their attacks in late winter or early spring,” said Zahorodniuk. “They should wait until the end of the spring when things are actually much drier.” But don’t count out the value of tanks of the right variety to turn the tide of a war that has threatened to descend into a long stalemate.
The West now has an opportunity to put to the test its most advanced main battle tanks in an active war situation. Its adversary has long been woefully ill-prepared for any such scenario. I first stumbled across a Soviet tank driver in Moscow back in the 1980s when NATO was still preparing for, an admittedly remote, possibility of hordes of Soviet armor pouring through the Fulda Gap, overrunning Western Europe. This driver laughed at any such prospect. He told me Soviet tank drivers would be issued sledgehammers to pound their transmissions into submission when the gears all too frequently jammed.
They also had no heating or cooling inside the tank, so the crews froze in winter and suffocated in summer, especially with the turrets closed. Decades later, some of these problems have been solved, but the vulnerabilities of Russian tanks in Ukraine continue. In particular, there’s the “jack-in-the-box” design flaw. Most Russian tanks carry their guns’ ammunition right next to the crews that pilot the tanks, load and fire the guns – up to 40 high-explosive charges. While the tanks are heavily armored on their front, they are not so much on their sides and especially their turret.
So, a direct hit by an American-made Javelin or British-Swedish NLAW anti-tank missile targeting a hot engine can impact the thinnest skin of the tank’s armor, exploding the entire ammunition stock and incinerating the crew. Western tanks – both America’s M-1 Abrams and Germany’s Leopard 2 – have their crews carefully isolated from the ammunition behind blast-proof barriers. The Russians also have a new tank – the T-14 Armata – that is every bit a match for the M-1 Abrams or the Leopard 2. The problem is they have produced only a handful of Armatas. Just three were in the last May Day parade in Red Square, after the first ones stalled during rehearsals for the 2015 parade.
Latest intelligence reports suggest production and deployment has been halted due to high cost and complexities. So, if the war in Ukraine turns into a tank battle, and it’s the Abrams and Leopards against even the newest Russian tanks it could be no contest, especially if the western varieties arrive in time. But without this advantage, it will be a matter of Ukraine’s current updated Soviet-era tanks against similar, perhaps even far more numerous Russian counterparts.
“It’s how you use them, what sort of concept of operation you have, how effective you are,” said Zahorodniuk. “And as 2022 has shown, Ukraine is more effective, so we can do better with less equipment.” It is not a gamble most would like to take. Still, Russia may need to be doing the same – making do with less. According to the Oryx blog, which tracks armament deployments and losses, Russia has lost at least a quarter of its pre-war inventory of 3,000 tanks with some elite armored units like the 4th Guards Tank Division losing an even higher percentage.
Ukraine officials believe they need 300 modern battle tanks to supplement their own equipment and fully even the score with Russia, Zahorodniuk told me, citing ministry of defense estimates. But it seems unlikely that even a fraction of that number have been pledged by all western allies for some still uncertain future date. So far, the tally is 31 M-1 Abrams from the US, 14 Leopard 2s from Germany, 14 British Challenger 2s. With more promised by Poland, Portugal, Norway, Spain, Finland, and the Netherlands. France will only be sending its light AMX-10 RC armored combat vehicles, not its main Leclerc battle tank, though President Emmanuel Macron has not ruled this out.
But with at least three months needed to train tank commanders, gunners, drivers, technicians, and mechanics on these complex machines, time is of the essence. Barely four months remain before the ground begins to dry out from the spring thaw. Little room for error or dithering.