David Axe


Sept 13, 2022

The Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive around the city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine starting on Sept. 6 destroyed half of the best tank division in the best tank army in the Russian armed forces.


A hundred wrecked or captured tanks in a hundred furious hours. That’s how much destruction the Ukrainians inflicted on the Russian 4th Guards Tank Division, part of the elite 1st Guards Tank Army (GTA), the Russian army’s best armor formation.


Now the 1st GTA is retreating north in order to preserve what remains of its front-line divisions. But the damage the tank army has suffered could have lasting implications—and not just for Russia’s 200-day-old wider war in Ukraine.


The 1st GTA “had been one of the most prestigious of Russia’s armies, allocated for the defense of Moscow, and intended to lead counterattacks in the case of a war with NATO,” the U.K. Defense Ministry explained. “It will likely take years for Russia to rebuild this capability.”


The 1st GTA has been in the fight since the start. When Russia widened its war in Ukraine on Feb. 24, it initially aimed to capture Kyiv and unseat the Ukrainian government. The 1st GTA led the assault on the capital city—and also led the retreat a month later after the Ukrainians won the battle for Kyiv.


The survivors of the 1st GTA—in particular, two regiments of the 4th GTD as well as two regiments of the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division—redeployed to the front around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, just 25 miles from the Russian border in northeastern Ukraine.


Five months later, the 1st GTA regiments still hadn’t made good all their losses. The 1st GTA “suffered heavy casualties in the initial phase of the invasion and had not been fully reconstituted prior to the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated.


And some 1st GTA elements, apparently including the 147th Artillery Regiment, later shifted to southern Ukraine in a desperate bid to blunt a Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson Oblast that kicked off on Aug. 30.


Damaged, divided, demoralized, cut off from reliable logistics owing to Ukrainian deep strikes on Russian supply lines and lacking effective air support, the 4th GTD and 2nd GMRD were no match for the dozen Ukrainian brigades, including the powerful 4th Tank Brigade, that attacked north, east and south of Kharkiv last week.

The Ukrainian 4th Tank Brigade’s T-72s and T-64s hit the Russian 4th GTD hard outside the city of Izium. By the time the Russian division retreated north toward the Russian border on or around Sept. 10, it had lost around 90 T-80U tanks that independent analysts can confirm.

That’s half the tanks the division would possess at full strength. The Ukrainians captured many of the T-80Us intact—and could fix them up, paint them with the Ukrainian army’s cross insignia and send them back into battle.

The 4th GTD and 2nd GMRD—and by extension the whole 1st GTA—probably are unfit for further fighting. They could reconstitute, but with what and whom? The Kremlin’s urgent recruitment drive is faltering. And having written off more than a thousand tanks in Ukraine, the Russians might need years to bring depleted units back up to full strength.

The Ukrainian army by contrast has more tanks now than it did before the current counteroffensives, as it has captured more Russian tanks than it has lost of its own.