December 8, 2023
As Russia’s wider war on Ukraine grinds toward its third year, both countries’ tanks mostly aren’t fighting as tanks. Hounded by drones and artillery, hemmed in by mines, Ukrainian and Russian tanks tend to hang back a mile or two behind the front line, angle their main guns high and fire at targets their crews can’t see. Like tough little howitzers.
That’s not what’s happening in one key sector. For two months now, the Kremlin has been hurling every available regiment and brigade at Avdiivka, a key Ukrainian strongpoint just northwest of Donetsk city in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
To make the Russians pay for every yard they advance, the Ukrainians have deployed tanks. And they’re fighting as tanks—rolling close to Russian assault groups to fire their cannons while Russian missiles explode around them. “We hold the defense line thanks to the tanks,” one Ukrainian soldier told Anadolu.
A drone video that circulated online this week depicts one of these armored counterattacks. A Ukrainian tank belonging to the 116th Mechanized Brigade—a T-64, apparently—rolls up on a Russian infantry team sheltering in a house just east of the sprawling coke plant that anchors Avdiivka’s northern flank.
Rapidly advancing then retreating then advancing again in order to complicate the Russians’ aim, the T-64’s three-person crew fires several rounds from its 125-millimeter main gun and demolishes some structures. What appears to be a Russian anti-tank missile narrowly misses the tank. Finally realizing they’ve lost, the Russian infantry flee on foot.
The skirmish highlights the tank’s strengths: its mobility, firepower and protection. It also highlights how vulnerable infantry are to tank attacks when the infantry haven’t had a chance to dig in, and aren’t supported by tanks of their own.
It’s not that the Russian regiments and brigades around Avdiivka, altogether overseeing an estimated 40,000 personnel, don’t have tanks and other armored vehicles. They do. We recently observed, north of Avdiivka, a rare tank-on-tank fight.
But the Russians learned the hard way that long columns of vehicles are extremely vulnerable while staging for an attack. For the first month of their Avdiivka campaign, the Russians sent column after column toward Avdiivka, only to run into pre-sighted Ukrainian kill-zones south, east and north of the city.
Blasted by mines, artillery and drones, these columns lost hundreds of tanks, fighting vehicles and other vehicles. In mid-November, Russian commanders switched up their methods. Perhaps
noting the successes the Ukrainians enjoyed this summer while deploying small dismounted infantry teams, the Russians began leaving their vehicles behind. “Russian forces are employing fewer vehicles in smaller numbers,” Ukrainian analysis group Frontelligence Insight reported on Nov. 24. “There’s a notable increase in the use of small tactical groups.”
When unsupported, these infantry are fodder for experienced tank crews. And Ukrainian commanders seem to appreciate that. They’ve deployed to Avdiivka’s flanks some or all of no fewer than five brigades. Four are mechanized brigades, each with a single company or battalion of respectively a dozen or 30 tanks. One is an actual tank brigade with several tank battalions.
It’s unclear exactly how many tanks the Ukrainians have deployed for the defense of Avdiivka. Scores? A hundred? Regardless, it’s a messy mix of types: older and newer T-64s, T-72s, some Leopard 2s and possibly even a few ex-Russian T-90s. But any one of these tanks is more than a match for an unsupported infantry squad.
Note—the Ukrainians’ tank tactics around Avdiivka don’t guarantee the city’s survival. The Russians have thousands more troops in the Avdiivka sector than the Ukrainians do. And despite purportedly losing hundreds of people a day, the Russians show no sign of relenting.
According to the U.K. Defense Ministry, the Kremlin’s decision to make a go at Avdiivka resulted in a 90-percent increase in Russian losses across the 600-mile front line.
But “Russian forces may be suffering losses along the entire front in Ukraine at a rate close to the rate at which Russia is currently generating new forces,” the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. concluded.
Many new troops arrive every day as experienced troops are killed or wounded. The Kremlin can sustain its Avdiivka campaign “as long as Pres. Vladimir Putin is willing and able to absorb the domestic consequences,” ISW warned.
But in expending all of its newly-mobilized manpower for what so far amounts to marginal gains around Avdiivka, the Kremlin might be giving up opportunities to attack elsewhere, now or in the near future.
According to ISW, “high Russian casualties will likely prevent Russia from fully replenishing and reconstituting existing units in Ukraine and forming new operational and strategic reserves if Russian force-generation efforts continue at current rates while the Russian military continues operations.”
To build up forces for other efforts, the Russians will have to succeed in capturing Avdiivka—or stop trying. The former is easier said than done as long as the Ukrainian army’s tanks stand in the way.
David Axe – Forbes Staff. Aerospace & Defense. He is a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina. Axe founded the website War Is Boring in 2007 as a webcomic, and later developed it into a news blog. He enrolled at Furman University and earned a
bachelor’s degree in history in 2000. Then he went to the University of Virginia to study medieval history before transferring to and graduating from the University of South Carolina with a master’s degree in fiction in 2004.