Ukrainian counteroffensive is coming. But it won’t be tanks that decide the outcome of the war

Western analysts are warning: The Russians – colloquially speaking – have gotten their act together. They have learned to operate efficiently with what they have. This applies to all areas in which the fight is conducted.

The lonely T-34 tank driving through Red Square among other military vehicles parading on May 9th as the only representative of its class, evoked smiles of disbelief and pity among observers around the world. How is that possible? The armoured might, boasting the largest number of tanks on the planet, for which the May show of force has always been a pillar of imperial pride, presents a specimen straight from a museum for the parade? Instead of the usually displayed state-of-the-art T-14 Armata tank, Putin’s pride, which was hailed as a revelation a few years ago and respected by specialists but was only seen on parades, and now suddenly disappeared... Puzzling.

Of course, the propaganda machine knew how to handle this problem perfectly by pointing out that the T-34 was the tank on which the Soviet forces defeated Nazi Germany, so it will always remain in the hearts of Russian patriots as a symbol of victory, right next to the “papasha” (PPSh-41 machine gun, “daddy”). However, detractors sarcastically remarked that all modern tanks went to war with Ukraine, including the less modern ones, and parading nearly 70-year-old T-55 tanks is quite embarrassing because those tanks didn’t reach Berlin, and their participation in the Arab-Israeli wars didn’t leave the best impression.

At the same time, while a spirited Russian tanker, emerging from the turret of an identical tank to the one familiar to all boys growing up in the communist Poland, “Rudy” with the tactical number 102 (the name of the fictional tank from a novel and TV series Four Tank-Men and a Dog -ed.), drove past the solemn Vladimir Vladimirovich and the appalled Alexander Lukashenko, Ukrainian tank crews were training on operating modern Western tanks, and the first vehicles were already in Ukraine.

Kyiv doesn’t have a colossal advantage

As usual, Poland took the lead, having delivered nearly 300 Soviet tanks, T-72s, and our own variation of this tank, the PT-91 “Twardy,” the year before, which helped during the most difficult period. At the beginning of 2023, amid squabbles with Germany over Leopards, Poland announced that it would provide a company of these vehicles, which means 14 units from its own resources. It was mid-January, Chancellor Scholz was then engaged in an embarrassing dialogue with the United States, saying that if they deliver, we will too, which resulted in Joe Biden promising Abrams tanks, and thus Germany also decided to transfer a company of 14 tanks, followed by the gathering of Leopards from various sources in Europe.

Shortly after the Poles, the British handed over a company of Challengers, of course, after training the crews. The matter of tanks became so fashionable in European political circles at the beginning of the year that even Emmanuel Macron, who never misses an opportunity to show off, said he was “considering” the transfer of Leclerc tanks, but fortunately, it ended with mere considerations. Why fortunately, we will discuss in a moment.

Around the end of the first quarter, it was possible to gather about 100 Leopards of various generations acquired from several countries, and they began to arrive in Ukraine successively. Even distant Spain delivered six units. Greece, the owner of 350 Leopards, remained unfazed, fearing an attack from its NATO ally, Turkey, which possesses 320 of these vehicles.

Together with 31 Abrams tanks, this tank collection allows for arming approximately three heavy mechanised brigades. I don’t want to engage in Talmudic considerations of how many tanks should be assigned to a brigade, whether such a brigade is based on wartime or peacetime establishment, and in relation to this number and establishment, whether it is an armoured or mechanised brigade, and whether, as a result, there are three or four of such brigades. I will only say that according to experts, these tanks constitute a significant striking force, especially when combined with infantry fighting vehicles. The Americans themselves have delivered or are expected to deliver around 150 Strykers and Bradleys. However, it is difficult to speak of creating any colossal advantage. Numerically, this cannot restore the armoured capabilities of the Ukrainian army, although in terms of quality, Western tanks are certainly superior to their Russian and post-Soviet counterparts.

Lighter Russian tanks consume less fuel

In addition to the opinions of experts, such as Professor Michael Clarke from the London-based King’s College, the former director of the renowned British think tank RUSI (Royal United Services Institute) specialising in security matters, who consider that Abrams tanks should not even be compared to Russian T-72s because they are superior in every aspect, it is worth taking into account the opinions of the tank enthusiasts themselves. They put forward the most credible expert for a substantive confrontation, namely Ramzan Kadyrov, who recently photographed himself in the turret of a T-72 and wrote on Telegram that fighting in such a tank is as enjoyable as fishing during a yacht trip, and Russian tanks will crush American Abrams “like nuts” when triumphantly entering Kyiv. It is evident that there is a considerable nervousness among Ruscist elites.

Of course, this does not mean that Western tanks have only advantages, while Russian tanks have only disadvantages. Evaluating the advantages of military equipment must always consider the so-called “realities of the battlefield,” to use the jargon of military specialists. Firstly, Russian tanks are significantly lighter than their Western counterparts. The British Challenger takes the lead here, weighing 75 tons. Abrams and Leopards weigh around 67 tons each, which is still substantial, considering that the average T-72 weighs only 47 tons.

American Abrams can travel 100 metres on one litre

This is a significant difference that translates into better mobility and lower fuel consumption. In this regard, the American Abrams sets records with its highly efficient turbine engine, which, however, consumes incredible amounts of fuel, moreover, aviation fuel, not regular diesel like other tanks. What does incredible mean? Well, in combat conditions, the Abrams can travel about 100 metres on one litre of fuel. However, it is faster and more powerful than Russian tanks. You win some, you lose some. Greater weight also means thicker armour and better crew protection. The Russian philosophy of warfare does not prioritise the preservation of human life, which is why, for example, the ammunition compartment in Russian tanks is not separated from the crew compartment. So when the armour is penetrated, it is highly likely that the entire ammunition supply will explode, along with the crew and the tank turret. We have seen many such images over the past year.

In Western tanks, it is different, and their armour is also different, which translates into better crew protection, but also adds weight. In the past, it was possible to describe this simply by stating the thickness of the armour in millimetres, but today it is not that easy because there are many types of armour, and the most advanced ones are, of course, classified. Therefore, it is not feasible to make a straightforward comparison, so it is better to conclude that Western tanks provide better crew protection, are faster and more powerful, but are heavier and require more fuel. Additionally, they are significantly better equipped with fire control systems and active protection systems that counteract guided projectiles.
A billboard in Moscow encouraging Russian citizens to serve in the army on contract. The placard proclaims: “Our profession is the defence of the motherland”. Photo by MAXIM SHEMETOV / Reuters / Forum
And again, without delving into lengthy deliberations, it can be said that operators of Western tanks have better and longer-range visibility, are better camouflaged, and can defend themselves more effectively against attacks. This does not mean that Russian tanks are incapable of these capabilities. Details regarding the specific systems installed in the Western tanks delivered to Ukraine during this half of the year will likely be revealed after the war ends, or perhaps never revealed at all.

Too many different systems for Ukraine

There is another significant drawback to this motley armour influx that has reached, is reaching, or is intended to reach Ukraine. Its diversity. That’s why I mentioned Leclerc tanks, saying that it is “fortunate” that President Macron did not go beyond “considering” their delivery. Because each tank constitutes an entire repair system, a system for supplying spare parts, and requires different logistics. A screw taken from an Abrams tank will not fit a Leclerc or a Leopard, let alone the British Challenger.

  All the diagrams and instructions will be different and will require the creation of separate teams of specialists. The speed and efficiency of making repairs on the battlefield or in close proximity to the battlefield are absolutely crucial for maintaining the combat readiness of all vehicles, especially tanks. Ukrainians will already have enough serious problems maintaining four different combat systems (as their main system is still comprised of Soviet tanks), so perhaps it is better that Macron decided to merely flirt and not offer those Leclerc tanks after all? On the other hand, Ukrainians, rightly so, adhere to the principle that one should never look a gift horse in the mouth...

Well, someone may ask, how did the title come about since so much space has been dedicated here to tanks? It seems to me that in the media-driven world where we like to think in shortcuts and understand complex matters through simple things, tanks have now become our key to understanding war and thinking about our success. At the very beginning, when Russia was preparing for an attack and the West had not yet decided to arm Ukraine with heavy weapons, only providing Javelin missiles and other handheld anti-tank launchers, we grasped the idea that this was the key to success.

We all probably remember the images of Ukrainian women and elderly people preparing Molotov cocktails and state-of-the-art American Javelins to confront the Russian tanks. It may have seemed at that time that the nation would launch itself at the occupiers with Molotov cocktails and cutting-edge American Javelins and emerge victorious.

Then, in the public consciousness, Turkish Bayraktars emerged, and this awareness was skillfully fueled by Ukrainian online propaganda. We sang songs about the Bayraktar, watched Russian vehicles being struck by bombs dropped from it, and harboured hope that this miraculous weapon, unavailable to the Russian “Orcs,” would drive them away. The culmination of this dream was the completely absurd public fundraising campaign to purchase a Bayraktar, which, in all likelihood, the Russians calmly shot down after a few days...

Improved Kremlin logistics

Meanwhile, reality was different and slowly began to seep into our collective consciousness. There was no miraculous weapon, and the greatest successes were achieved by Ukrainians using traditional long-range artillery. For example, they massacred the famous Russian convoy of armoured vehicles that got stuck in Bucha near Kyiv due to poor command. The devastating fire from Ukrainian self-propelled howitzers wiped it off the face of the earth. Fortunately, there were no women and elderly people with bottles of gasoline there.

However, since collective imagination favours simple solutions, the next “game changer” that took root in it was the American HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System). In fact, for the first time, collective imagination came closer to reality because the precise short-range rocket launchers truly inflicted significant damage on the Russian army. The Russians imagined that they could build huge ammunition and fuel depots near the front lines and maintain headquarters with impunity. They bombarded the Ukrainians with a barrage of missiles and began to advance relentlessly, taking advantage of the supplies within their reach. And then it turned out that these depots and headquarters started to explode en masse.

Thanks to the HIMARS. They forced the Russians to fundamentally overhaul their logistics and move the depots at least 100 kilometres away from the front lines, as well as disperse those directly involved in combat operations. It was a shock for the invaders, from which they have already recovered, but it was a significant setback in mid-2022.

However, since a considerable amount of time has passed since the introduction of the HIMARS into the front lines in June of last year, and the “HIMARS effect” no longer impresses the Russian army as it did initially, collective imagination craved something new, and that turned out to be tanks. All post-Soviet tanks that could be delivered to Ukraine were provided in 2022 by Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia, as well as by Russia itself because the Ukrainian army acquired most of its tanks by refurbishing captured vehicles.

There arose a need to acquire new tanks, and the only possibility was to obtain modern Western tanks. Ukrainian authorities began sending requests to Western countries for Leopards, and the public imagined that finally, there was a combat vehicle before us that would allow the Russians to be defeated in the planned spring counteroffensive.

Moscow learns from its mistakes

And so, the Ukrainians received nearly 150 modern tanks, which is a large number but not staggering. They are now faced with the decision to launch an offensive that holds historical significance. It is no secret that the West is preparing to suspend its unconditional support from autumn, when it will seek to persuade Ukraine to engage in peace talks. Therefore, whatever has been achieved thus far will remain, but what has not may be lost for many decades to come.

Russian Army: too many clumsy fingers

The war is the same as a century ago.

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What will be decisive for the success of this offensive? Are tanks? I dare not answer such a question, but I can point to a document that sheds some light on this issue. It is a report recently published by the aforementioned think tank RUSI, titled rather ominously: “Meatgrinder: Russian Tactics in the Second Year of Its Invasion of Ukraine.” The report was authored by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, and it was produced as a result of their trip to the front lines in April and May and a series of interviews with soldiers from various units of the Ukrainian army.

This is a professional report by military experts who are not seeking miraculous recipes for victory but rather coolly consider what is possible and what is not. They are far from underestimating the Russians because they know that underestimating the enemy is the first step towards defeat. The main message of this report is that the Russian army is capable of learning from its mistakes, and it has learned a lot over the past year and a half.

What have they learned? For example, they completely abandoned their initial concept with which they entered Ukraine, based on the cooperation of highly mobile Battalion Battle Groups, and shifted to a structure based on the division of infantry according to specialisation and type of use. Without delving into specialised details, it is worth mentioning that thanks to this division, Russian military personnel were able to introduce and utilise a large number of poorly trained “mobilised soldiers” who joined the army after the autumn partial mobilisation. Specifically, they were used for two purposes: detecting Ukrainian firing positions through combat and identifying their weak points in the same way.

The destruction of these positions and the attack on weak points were carried out by other categories of infantry, which were much more experienced, trained, and better equipped. It goes without saying that the casualty ratios were unevenly distributed among these differently treated types of infantry. The “mobilised soldiers,” in blunt terms, served as cannon fodder, hence the shocking title of the report.

New tank strategy of the Russians

The enormous losses in armoured vehicles have also taught the Russians to treat their tanks differently. They are rarely used for frontal attacks. The last such attack took place in spring this year near Vuhledar when an entire armoured brigade was destroyed while attempting to break through minefields and well-prepared positions of the Ukrainian army. This, it seems, effectively cured the Russians of any ideas of emulating armoured thrusts from World War II.

So, what are tanks used for then?

Firstly, as artillery at short distances, which may seem strange given that tank guns are much weaker and have a much shorter range compared to conventional artillery. However, tanks are much more mobile and better protected, which the Russians take advantage of.

Secondly, for destroying identified targets at short distances in positional battles.

Finally, tanks are used to engage the enemy during troop rotations. The Ukrainian attack during troop rotations led to a Russian defeat last autumn in the Kharkiv region, and since then, their routine tactic is to conduct tank raids when subunits are being rotated. They shower the enemy with a barrage of shells and then quickly withdraw. The best-equipped tanks are used for this purpose.

It is evident that the Russians have learned to operate efficiently with what they have. It is worth noting that older tank models, such as the reintroduced T-62, which were modern in the 1970s, are also suitable for this type of operation. The information about delving so deeply into their stockpiles caused widespread ridicule, but it turns out to be unfounded.

Putin’s military now knows how to use reconnaissance systems

The report speaks positively about two highly developed types of troops in the Russian army: engineering and artillery. The engineering troops are capable of rapidly constructing defensive fortifications with a depth typically reaching 30 kilometres, consisting of multiple layers, including minefields. Since Russia has not signed the Anti-Personnel Landmines Convention, these fortifications are saturated with such mines, often co-located with anti-tank mines.

Artillery plays a dominant role in this war and is responsible for about 80% of the casualties. According to the estimates of the report’s authors, in 2022 the Russians fired around 12 million artillery shells, launching between 20,000 to 60,000 shells per day. This has led to a serious depletion of ammunition stocks. Since their annual domestic production is approximately 2.5 million shells, they have been forced to reduce ammunition consumption. It is predicted that they will fire around 7 million shells this year. However, it is not just the intensity of the artillery fire that poses a threat in the face of Russian artillery. The Russians are increasingly learning how to use an effective reconnaissance and target acquisition system called “Strzelec”. It combines imagery from multiple drones and observation points to precisely indicate to commanders where to direct the fire. Typically, this happens within minutes after conducting reconnaissance.

In 2022, many Russian units did not even unpack the components of this system, and if they did, the soldiers did not know how to use them. Now, they have acquired the necessary skills, and it is one of the significant changes that have occurred since the beginning of the war.

Effectively disrupting Ukrainian electronics

Another strong point of the Russians is electronic warfare, which involves jamming and intercepting all kinds of electronic signals used by the enemy. As a result, Ukrainians lose around 10,000 drones every month on the front lines, mostly reconnaissance drones. The Russians are also capable of intercepting and decrypting real-time communication carried out using Motorola radios with 256-bit encryption.

Furthermore, air defence should be understood not only as the ability to attack aircraft, as they rarely venture into the front-line areas from both sides, but primarily as defence against missiles. Rockets launched from Himars systems are mostly intercepted by Russian defence systems this year, and multiple missiles need to be launched simultaneously to have a chance of hitting the target.

Simply put, the Russians have “got their act together” and started using their resources effectively. This applies to all areas of the conflict. If the Watling and Reynolds report were to be summarised in one sentence, it would probably be: “The Russians have got their act together.”

How should one proceed to ensure the success of a counteroffensive then? The authors of the report end with a significant sentence stating that how the Ukrainian army chooses to confront the challenges presented above is sensitive information that will not be disclosed in the text. They remind us that this is not a mere exercise; it is an operation on a living organism, and the lives of people and the future of Ukraine are at stake. And we can infer that it also pertains to the future of Poland.

Of course, the authors then mention the critical areas for the success of the operations. The titular tanks are just one of many elements, and notably, they are discussed from a logistics standpoint rather than their direct combat capabilities. It is crucial to have sufficient spare parts available near the battlefield, not just ammunition and fuel, as this is evident, but spare parts.

Surprise as a chance for Zelensky

Finally, to win, it is necessary to move away from thinking solely about equipment and supplies. The authors of the report write, “Much of the emphasis for international support has understandably been on equipment. Tactics, however, will be decisive in determining whether Ukrainian infantry are able to succeed on the battlefield.” In the ultimate calculation, it will be a clash of morale and skills. As for morale, the comparison clearly favours the Ukrainians. Will the intensive training that thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have undergone in recent times yield the desired effect? That is a big question.

However, if I were to mention just one factor after reading the report that should determine Ukrainian (and our) success, it would be the element of surprise. But not surprise in the classical sense of choosing the place and time so that the enemy does not realise an attack is coming. With the current level of reconnaissance, achieving this type of surprise is unrealistic. Rather, it is about employing new methods of warfare and new types of weaponry, and perhaps new ways of utilising that weaponry.

The Russians, as highlighted by the RUSI report authors, have indeed “got their act together” and are fighting much better than at the beginning, but they are reactive. They have learned to react to challenges and operate in an effective routine. Any change on the Ukrainian side elicits unpredictable and panicked reactions from them, and time is needed for them to develop new routines. Moreover, they perform well in static warfare conditions but struggle with coordination on the move. When manoeuvring becomes necessary, coupled with new, previously unknown behaviours from the enemy, they can become disoriented. This is where Ukraine’s opportunity lies.

In the years to come, we will learn what truly mattered. What tactics were employed to disorient the Russians? And which new combat systems proved most effective? Perhaps the recently supplied British long-range Storm Shadow missiles capable of striking fortified targets from distances of up to 250 km? Maybe the radio-electronic warfare systems known only to specialists? Or perhaps the tanks after all?

– Robert Bogdański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: Super modern Abrams tanks are to be handed over to the Ukrainian army. Pictured here during a demonstration of the M1A2 model at the Polish training ground in Nowa Dęba in April 2023. Photo U.S. Army / Zuma Press / Forum
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