Tank assault didn’t work for Putin. Zelensky’s armoured fist will hit much harder

A tank commander fires his machine gun during an advance towards the enemy during the Aurora 23 military exercise at the Rinkaby firing range outside Kristianstad, Sweden on May 06, 2023 - Johna Nilsson/AFP
A tank commander fires his machine gun during an advance towards the enemy during the Aurora 23 military exercise at the Rinkaby firing range outside Kristianstad, Sweden on May 06, 2023 - Johna Nilsson/AFP

The broad Russian offensive of February 2022 was a failure: but that failure was due to the weaknesses of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It should be viewed in that light rather than a lesson in modern manoeuvre warfare.

Russian military failure in the field was down to four factors.

Firstly there was overconfidence. Based on the successful takeover of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, the Russian expectation was for a swift collapse of Ukrainian resistance and a level of cooperation and collaboration by the Ukrainian population that would make the “special military operation” – as the Russians call it – more of a liberation. That overconfidence was also based on a population estimate of the number of Russian speakers and an assumption that “if they speak Russian, they must support us”.

For that reason, the Russian advance was meant to be a combined all arms operation to swiftly overwhelm the Ukrainians and seize their centre of gravity, the city of Kiev, decapitating the leadership and creating a benign and permissive environment for the Russians to absorb the territory. But things did not play out that way.

The second failure factor was deep levels of theft and corruption at every level. The Russian military on paper was a modern and potentially effective machine with some logistic vulnerabilities, but overall fit for purpose. In the real world, money spent on providing rations for Russian troops was in fact stolen, and out of date dog food was substituted for high calorific combat rations. Some of the money to buy tyres for wheeled combat vehicles was spent on Chinese knock-offs that perished in the sub-zero temperatures, and the rest of the budget pocketed. The explosive in the reactive armour on many of the Russian tanks was stolen and replaced with sand and in the field, vital supplies and spares were sold off.  As recently as last month a Russian colonel was caught selling off seven T-90 tank engines.

The third factor was the sheer incompetence of the Russian military leadership. Russian operational security was compromised, and where the paratroopers and special forces of the VDV airborne landed they were ambushed and slaughtered with losses as high as 90 per cent.

By feeding in their armoured brigades piecemeal, the Russians provided an ideal target for the hit and run tactics of the Ukrainians, well supplied from early on with handheld NLAW antitank weapons from the UK. This protracted slaughter saw much of Russia's new class of “kontraktniki” professional soldiers killed, wounded or captured.  From then on, poorly trained cannon-fodder replaced them in the fight against an increasingly experienced enemy. Mass attacks by armour into well sited antitank screens and human wave attacks into a storm of artillery and small arms fire – like something from the worst parts of WWI – further depleted the already thin manpower resource.

The fourth factor was logistic failure at every level. Poor lines of communication meant logistics were woeful. Tanks ran out of fuel and were abandoned. Units ran out of food and simply surrendered. Ammunition was fired off so quickly that stocks ran out. Newly manufactured ammunition – which the UK assesses is being used now – has a failure rate of up to 50 per cent, doubtless due to corner-cutting so that money can be stolen.

The imminent Ukrainian counter-offensive will be a different story. To begin with, the quality of the men and machines and training is excellent.  There is never enough of anything but what there is, is very good. Ukrainian command, control and tactics have been sharpened by the experience gained over a year of war.

But we must remember that Ukraine is a vast country and it may be unwise to hope for massive armoured breakthroughs penetrating deeply into Russian rear areas and rolling their forces up. There are unlikely to be large sweeping advances. The ability of Ukrainian logistics to rapidly extend supply lines to keep up with speeding Leopards and Challengers while also keeping the supporting mobile artillery supplied is finite, costly and subject to battlefield conditions.

It would be prudent to manage expectations of the coming offensive. We are more likely to see significant, efficient attrition and erosion of the Russian will and ability to fight, rather than any knockout blow.

Nonetheless when we compare the probable Ukrainian offensive this year with the ill-conceived Russian invasion of February 2022 there is a massive qualitative gulf in the potential for performance and success.

Victory will come, but it will take time – and regrettably it will come at some cost in blood and treasure.

Colonel Tim Collins is a former British Army officer who served with the SAS and as commander of the Royal Irish during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when his before-battle speech to his soldiers made headlines around the world

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