A three-week fight in the town of Vuhledar in southern Ukraine produced what Ukrainian officials say was the biggest tank battle of the war so far, and a stinging setback for the Russians.
March 1, 2023
The New York Times
KURAKHOVE, Ukraine — Before driving into battle in their mud-spattered war machine, a T-64 tank, the three-man Ukrainian crew performs a ritual.
The commander, Pvt. Dmytro Hrebenok, recites the Lord’s Prayer. Then, the men walk around the tank, patting its chunky green armor.
“We say, ‘Please, don’t let us down in battle,’” said Sgt. Artyom Knignitsky, the mechanic. “‘Bring us in and bring us out.’”
Their respect for their tank is understandable. Perhaps no weapon symbolizes the ferocious violence of war more than the main battle tank. Tanks have loomed over the conflict in Ukraine in recent months — militarily and diplomatically — as both sides prepared for offensives. Russia pulled reserves of tanks from Cold War-era storage, and Ukraine prodded Western governments to supply American Abrams and German Leopard 2 tanks.
The sophisticated Western tanks are expected on the battlefield in the next several months. The new Russian armor turned up earlier — and in its first wide-scale deployment was decimated.
A three-week battle on a plain near the coal-mining town of Vuhledar in southern Ukraine produced what Ukrainian officials say was the biggest tank battle of the war so far, and a stinging setback for the Russians.
In the extended battle, both sides sent tanks into the fray, rumbling over dirt roads and maneuvering around tree lines, with the Russians thrusting forward in columns and the Ukrainians maneuvering defensively, firing from a distance or from hiding places as Russian columns came into their sights.
When it was over, not only had Russia failed to capture Vuhledar, but it also had made the same mistake that cost Moscow hundreds of tanks earlier in the war: advancing columns into ambushes.
Blown up on mines, hit with artillery or obliterated by anti-tank missiles, the charred hulks of Russian armored vehicles now litter farm fields all about Vuhledar, according to Ukrainian military drone footage. Ukraine’s military said Russia had lost at least 130 tanks and armored personnel carriers in the battle. That figure could not be independently verified. Ukraine does not disclose how many weapons it loses.
“We studied the roads they used, then hid and waited” to shoot in ambushes, Sergeant Knignitsky said.
Lack of expertise also bedeviled the Russians. Many of their most elite units had been left in shambles from earlier fighting. Their spots were filled with newly conscripted soldiers, unschooled in Ukraine’s tactics for ambushing columns. In one indication that Russia is running short of experienced tank commanders, Ukrainian soldiers said they captured a medic who had been reassigned to operate a tank.
The Russian army has focused on, and even mythologized, tank warfare for decades for its redolence of Russian victories over the Nazis in World War II. Factories in the Ural Mountains have churned out tanks by the thousands. In Vuhledar, by last week Russia had lost so many machines to sustain armored assaults that they had changed tactics and resorted only to infantry attacks, Ukrainian commanders said.
The depth of the Russian defeat was underscored by Russian military bloggers, who have emerged as an influential pro-war voice in the country. Often critical of the military, they have posted angry screeds about the failures of repeated tank assaults, blaming generals for misguided tactics with a storied Russian weapon.
Grey Zone, a Telegram channel affiliated with the Wagner mercenary group, posted on Monday that “relatives of the dead are inclined almost to murder and blood revenge against the general” in charge of the assaults near Vuhledar.
In a detailed interview last week in an abandoned house near the front, Lt. Vladislav Bayak, the deputy commander of Ukraine’s 1st Mechanized Battalion of the 72nd brigade, described how Ukrainian soldiers were able to inflict such heavy losses in what commanders said was the biggest tank battle of the war so far.
Ambushes have been Ukraine’s signature tactic against Russian armored columns since the early days of the war. Working from a bunker in Vuhledar, Lieutenant Bayak spotted the first column of about 15 tanks and armored personnel carriers approaching on a video feed from a drone.
“We were ready,” he said. “We knew something like this would happen.”
They had prepared a kill zone farther along a dirt road that the tanks were rumbling down. The commander needed only to give an order over the radio — “To battle!” — Lieutenant Bayak said.
Anti-tank teams hiding in tree lines along the fields, and armed with American infrared-guided Javelins and Ukrainian laser-guided Stugna-P missiles, powered up their weapons. Farther away, artillery batteries were ready. The dirt road had been left free of mines, while the fields all about were seeded with them, so as to entice the Russians to advance while preventing tanks from turning around once the trap was sprung.
The column of tanks becomes most vulnerable, Lieutenant Bayak said, after the shooting starts and drivers panic and try to turn around — by driving onto the mine-laden shoulder of the road. Blown-up vehicles then act as impediments, slowing or stalling the column. At that point,
Ukrainian artillery opens fire, blowing up more armor and killing soldiers who clamber out of disabled machines. A scene of chaos and explosions ensues, the lieutenant said.
Russian commanders have sent armored columns forward for a lack of other options against Ukraine’s well-fortified positions, however costly the tactic, he said.
Over about three weeks of the tank battle, repeated Russian armored assaults floundered. In one instance, Ukrainian commanders called in a strike by HIMARS guided rockets; they are usually used on stationary targets like ammunition depots or barracks, but also proved effective against a stationary tank column.
The Ukrainians also fired with American M777 and French Caesar howitzers, as well as other Western-provided weaponry such as the Javelins.
The Ukrainian tank crew that prayed before each battle nicknamed their tank The Wanderer, for its wandering movements around the battlefield. Between missions it remained hidden in trees under a camouflage net, beside a road churned into a panorama of mud by passing tanks, five miles or so from the front line.
During the battle for Vuhledar, Private Hrebenok, the commander, was ordered to drive forward from that spot on dangerous missions, three or four times per day.
Private Hrebenok, only 20 years old, had no formal training in tank combat when the war started. But in the frantic first days of the war he was assigned to a tank, and has fought continuously in them since, picking up tricks along the way.
Training still looms as a problem. Ukraine, too, is losing skilled soldiers and replacing them with green recruits. And many Ukrainian tank crewmen are being trained on Western tanks in countries like Germany and Britain.
“All my knowledge I gained in the field,” he said. The Russian tank crews, he said, are in contrast mostly new recruits without the benefit of any combat to season them.
In ambushes, the crew hides the tank within range of a road that Russian tanks or armored personnel carriers might travel down. Then it waits quietly. As they sit and prepare for ambush, they must keep the engine warm, because restarting it would take too long. Idling would be noisy. Instead, they burn a small kerosene heater beside the motor.
Once, while they were waiting, a Russian armored personnel carrier passed through their sight and they fired but narrowly missed, damaging but not destroying the machine.
In the last major engagement, a week ago, the order came in during the gray pre-dawn to prepare an ambush for a column of 16 Russian tanks and armored vehicles advancing toward the Ukrainian lines. The crew said their prayer, patted their tank and drove forward.
“We hid the tank in a tree line and waited for them,” Private Hrebenok said. “It’s always scary but we need to destroy them.”
In this instance, they stopped about three miles short of the ambush site, just out of range of return fire, and shot in coordination with a drone pilot who called in coordinates on a radio for targets they could not see directly.
The Russian column stalled on mines and, Private Hrebenok said, The Wanderer opened fire. The Russian tank crews had little chance once they were in the kill zone, he said.
“We destroyed a lot of Russian equipment,” he said. “What they did wrong was come to Ukraine.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.