- Russia’s tank force — once seen as formidable — is being ripped apart by the Ukrainian military.
- Western officials say Russia has likely lost up to half of its tanks on the battlefield, if not more.
- Military experts told Insider that this is because Russia doesn’t know how to use them properly.
Russia’s tanks were once seen as fearsome, formidable threats, but the war in Ukraine shows it doesn’t know how to use them.
The Russian tank force has taken a beating. US officials have said on more than one occasion that Russia has likely lost as many as half its main battle tanks while fighting in Ukraine, if not more. According to an open-source intelligence analysis by Oryx, more than 1,780 Russian tanks have been destroyed, damaged, captured, or abandoned since Moscow launched its invasion in February 2022.
Russia’s staggering tank losses — which include the T-72, T-64, T-80, and T-90 tanks — can be attributed to its failure to provide adequate fire support in combat, military experts told Insider. The Russian tank force has also shown extremely little adaptability and common sense.
These problems were underscored during a recent tank battle near the eastern Ukrainian town of Vuhledar, where Russia lost scores of tanks and armored vehicles. Moscow repeated detrimental mistakes it made during its assault on Kyiv in the early days of the war: it sent columns of tanks straight into Ukrainian ambushes.
Just like like last spring — where the long columns were assaulted by the defending Ukrainians — this tactic proved unsuccessful for the Russians in Vuhledar, where it lost over 100 armored vehicles. Moscow’s troops appear to have botched the use of their tanks on the battlefield in other instances as well.
Russian tanks have fallen prey to Ukrainian soldiers using anti-tank Javelin missiles because they’re hanging out aimless in open fields, with little to no support or protection. At the same time, they’ve been seen driving straight through minefields and exploding. Due to the design of many of Russia’s tanks, a hit can cause the ammunition to detonate, killing the crew as the overpressure blows the top off.
Russia can’t seem to integrate its tanks
One serious misstep by Russia’s military has been its failure to protect its tanks with a combined-arms approach that provides additional support and integrate its armor with other units.
“There’s the structural problem of not having enough dismounted infantry to provide security for tanks,” Jeffrey Edmonds, a Russia expert at the Center for Naval Analyses and former US Army armor officer, told Insider. “I’m just not seeing units do what you expect military units to do.”
Russia is mostly relying on artillery but would likely benefit from having more air superiority so it can avoid carrying out complicated maneuvers on the battlefield, Marina Miron, an honorary research fellow at King’s College London’s Centre for Military Ethics, told Insider. And it’s “questionable” how well Russia’s tanks are integrated into its overall operations.
“I think that they are kind of fighting a war that they were not prepared for, in tactical and operational terms,” Miron said. “They have lost a lot of tanks. A lot of them — probably most of them — just because of negligence. And the tanks they are using are in no way superior to what the Ukrainians are using.”
Russia and Ukraine have often squared off against each other using the same Soviet-era military equipment, encompassing everything from tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to aircraft. Ukraine has lost less than 500 tanks throughout the conflict, according to an Oryx tally. Russia started off with a larger tank force and thus had more to lose.
At the moment, Ukraine is waiting for a wave of advanced Western tanks, including German-made Leopards and British Challenger 2 tanks. These modern systems are better equipped than those that have largely dominated the battlefield so far.
‘It seems like they just don’t care’
Even without these advanced systems, Kyiv’s military has still been able to inflict significant damage on some of Russia’s elite tank forces. One prestigious unit, the 1st Guards Tank Army, has suffered heavy losses on multiple occasions while battling against Ukrainian troops.
“The Russians are not very good at using the tanks, and they’re not very good at integrating the tanks,” Miron said. “They could have used mechanized infantry to protect tanks, but it seems like they just don’t care.”
Another issue plaguing Russia’s tank force has been its lack of creativity or maneuverability. For example, Edmonds explained, Russia has a problem with minefields, as was seen recently in Vuhledar.
Clearing a minefield is a slow, complicated, and deliberate process that involves several steps, but Russian tanks appear to drive right through them. Some of the tanks blow up, some retreat, and some are hit with anti-tank guided missiles like the Javelin, and the process just repeats itself when the Ukrainians lay more mines.
“It’s just dumb,” Edmonds said. “And you just see them do this over and over again.”
“I’m not seeing any tactical-level adaptability,” he continued. On one hand, there’s no display of basic levels of training, like knowing how to react to contact. Additionally, there’s no development or innovation from the Russians, which he attributes in part to Russia’s style of warfare — a top-down type of leadership as opposed to something like the ground-level “upwelling” of initiative seen in Western militaries.
“You would think at this point maybe you would see the better application of maneuver and combined arms,” Edmonds said of the Russian tactics. “But I’m not seeing it.”