Home » Ukraine Update: The Ukrainian tank shuffle and the case of the missing Abrams

Ukraine Update: The Ukrainian tank shuffle and the case of the missing Abrams

Russian forces remain on the offensive throughout much of Eastern Ukraine, although their greatest focus appears to be predominantly around Avdiivka and Bakhmut. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s only active offensive of note is occurring in southwestern Ukraine, attempting a crossing of the Dnipro River east of Kherson, around the village of Krynky.

One notable development has been Ukraine’s careful shuffling of its most powerful armored fighting vehicles among its engaged front-line units handling Russian offensives large and small. Ukraine has been getting this hardware where it is most needed while taking pains to rest and recover many of its key units from its summer counteroffensive.

Although the battle lines have not moved more than a kilometer or two in any direction this winter, the fighting has remained fierce. Even in areas with fewer concentrations of Ukrainian and Russian troops, like the fighting in the far northeast around Kupiansk, Russia has been launching repeated smaller-scale assaults.

For example, between Dec. 14, 2023, and Jan. 4, the Russians launched a series of seven assaults towards the town of Synkivka, about 8 kilometers northeast of Kupiansk. Synkivka sits on the main highway approaching Kupiansk from the northeast. The town thus represents a crucial logistical stepping stone for any Russian attempt to recapture the strategically important town of Kupiansk, a key crossing site of the Oskil River.

Accordingly, Ukraine has reportedly heavily fortified the town, including the laying of dense minefields to protect against potential approach vectors by Russian assault forces. The town is reportedly garrisoned by elements of the 14th and 30th Mechanized Brigades. Both are veteran units that date back to 2014 or before, although equipped predominantly with aging Soviet-era arms and equipment.

Russian attempts to punch through these defenses have not gone well.

Russia began a series of mechanized attacks running straight through the minefields north of Synkivka, sending columns of various tanks and BMP infantry fighting vehicles through narrow routes supposedly cleared of mines by Russian combat engineer units.

The attacks have yielded no significant advances. More recent Russian attacks in the same minefield can be seen driving beside the wreckage of prior attacks.

Despite the repeated failures, the latest video posted by the 30th Mechanized (above) shows yet another column of Russian BMPs rolling straight into a minefield and getting pinned down by FPV drone attacks before the remainder are subjected to artillery bombardment—topped off with a cluster-munition shell raking the dismounted survivors.

Similarly, Russian forces have relentlessly tried to push Ukraine back from its toehold on the left bank of the Dnipro River around Krynky. Despite vastly outnumbering Ukrainian ground forces in the area, Ukrainian advantages in drone warfare and artillery have balanced the odds.

Ukraine’s offensive in Krynky is being conducted by the light infantry brigade of the 35th Marines, supported by numerous artillery, drone, anti-aircraft, and electronic warfare units. However, Ukraine has very few armored vehicles on the left bank due to the difficulty of moving armor across the river without a bridge.

So where are Ukraine’s best armored units?

One of Ukraine’s most powerful armored units is the 47th Mechanized Brigade. It spearheaded the Ukrainian advance that liberated Robotyne in the Zaporizhzhia portion of the summer counteroffensive, and given that it is equipped with M2 Bradley fighting vehicles and Ukraine’s most advanced Leopard 2A6 tanks, it is arguably the most powerful fighting unit in the Ukrainian Army.

The 47th Brigade is presently deployed north of Avdiivka, and has been instrumental in halting the Russian advance toward Stepove for over two months,

In particular, the Bradleys’ rapid-firing 25mm autocannons have been devastatingly effective at stopping both Russian light armor and massed infantry assaults.

One curious recent development has involved one of the 47th Brigade’s other advanced armored vehicles: its Leopard 2A6 tanks. Despite the fact the 47th Brigade is involved in one of the fiercest areas of combat anywhere in the present Russo-Ukrainian war, the Ukrainian General Staff appears to have stripped the 47th Brigade of its Leopard 2A6s and replaced them with the ubiquitous T-64BV tank.

Rumors about the transfer of the tanks began to swirl around social media in late December as posts from the 21st Mechanized Brigade revealed that they were now operating Leopard 2A6 tanks.

The 21st Mechanized operates far to the north of Avdiivka, defending Ukrainian positions east of Lyman against a Russian offensive out of Kreminna. The 21st Brigade is sometimes called the “Swedish Brigade” because it received training in Sweden and was equipped with the highly advanced Swedish CV90 infantry fighting vehicle and Strv 122 tank (a Swedish variant of the Leopard 2A5 tank).

The reason the 21st Brigade revealing its use of the Leopard 2A6 immediately raised eyebrows is due to this model’s rarity within the Ukrainian army. Ukraine received only 21 Leopard 2A6 tanks from Germany. A Ukrainian Mechanized Brigade typically operates a single tank battalion with 30 tanks, and so a battalion of Leopard 2A6 tanks would have begun understrength, and at least seven of the tanks have been confirmed destroyed with several more damaged.

The 47th Brigade may have had under a dozen operational Leopard 2A6s remaining. It appears that Ukraine may have chosen to consolidate its remaining Leopard 2A6 and Strv 122 (Leopard 2A5s) as a single battalion attached to the 21st Brigade.

As the 21st Brigade received only 10 Strv 122s and has lost at least a few in combat, the Leopard 2A6s may have been needed badly. As a result, the 47th Brigade appears to now be operating the heavily upgraded Soviet T-64BVs, one of Ukraine’s workhorse Soviet-era tanks.

Ukrainian T-64BV tank of the 2017 model in service with the 🇺🇦17th Separate Tank Brigade.
T-64BV of the 7th Separate Tank Brigade

The T-64BVs are Ukraine’s most commonly fielded tank. At 40 tons, it is far lighter than the 62-ton Leopard 2A6 or the 68-ton M1A1SA Abrams. It has a far weaker engine and far less protection for its crew.  

Extensive upgrades to its fire control systems and night fighting abilities make the T-64BV a dependable and solid if lightly protected tank. The T-64BV has performed admirably, and its night fighting capabilities have proved superior to many older Russian tanks. It is still an unmistakably inferior tank to a Leopard 2A6.

Why would Ukraine choose to remove its best tank from a unit involved in the heaviest and most desperate fighting anywhere in the war?

One possible answer suggested by analysts was that the 31 M1ASA Abrams tanks that arrived in Ukraine this winter were intended for the 47th Brigade—but thus far, there has been no indication that Abrams has been deployed with the 47th Brigade, or has entered combat at all. One possible reason for the Abrams’s absence may be the need for additional protection against drone strikes for the weaker side armor of Abrams, but whatever the case may be, the Abrams does not appear to have replaced the Leopard 2A6s on the front lines.

Instead, the reason may be simple scarcity and need. Unlike in past modern conflicts, tanks used in close-range assault roles in large numbers simply have not been a common part the fighting in Ukraine except during the first few months of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Rather than pressing in at close ranges to assault enemy positions, the most common use of tanks has been as heavily protected fire support platforms—staying 2-3 kilometers back from combat while firing shells to support infantry attacks.

When both sides’ tanks are standing back 2-3 kilometers, the tanks only rarely venture into each other’s practical firing ranges, making tank-on-tank combat quite a rarity.

To the extent that tanks do venture forward, it is often to rescue an embattled and isolated unit. If a Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicle is disabled and its crew and passengers pinned down, it is not an uncommon tactic for a pair of tanks to push forward to help.

Their heavy armor makes such a move more survivable, and its powerful main gun can be extremely threatening to anything short of a Russian main battle tank, forcing other vehicles to pull back. The tanks can lay down smoke and the survivors can hop onto the tops of the tanks to hitch a ride back to friendly lines.

In fulfilling such roles, it may be that the modern tanks are more needed by the 21st Brigade than the 47th.

The 47th Mechanized Brigade’s Bradleys have the powerful TOW2 anti-tank guided missiles that can help them take out all but the most modern Russian tanks with equally advanced electronic countermeasures. They can do this on their own, without the need for a tank acting in support.

Comparatively, the 21st Brigade’s CV90s have a powerful firing 40mm autocannon that can tear up any Russian armor short of a main battle tank and utterly wreck dismounted infantry units—but it is not powerful enough to penetrate the frontal armor of most Russian main battle tanks.

Given that tank-on-tank combat is relatively rare in the first place, and that the Bradleys can hold their own against older Russian tank units better than CV90s, the 21st Brigade’s need for modern tanks may simply have been greater than the 47th Brigade’s.

Whatever the case may be, the episode also equally shows just how few modern tanks Ukraine has been given, and the struggle for Ukraine to meet the needs of its front-line units, juggling their limited resources.  

The news isn’t all bad.

Some of Ukraine’s most elite units that led the summer 2023 counteroffensive appear to be resting, recovering, and incorporating replacement troops. There has been little sign of the powerful 82nd Air Assault Brigade, with its Challenger 2 tanks and American Stryker Fighting Vehicles, which Rybar reports as resting in Western Ukraine. There has been no sign of the 1st Tank Brigade anywhere on the front lines since early November 2023.

Ukraine has been busy standing up five new mechanized Brigades (160th, 161st, 162nd, 163rd, and 164th) equipped largely with Soviet equipment. Some of these units are likely to receive the older Leopard 1A5 tanks that should be arriving in the hundreds in 2024.

Despite the Biden administration announcing it has exhausted the last bit of available funding for Ukraine aid as of Dec. 27, and while the European Union struggles to pass an aid bill for Ukraine due to a veto by Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán, Ukraine appears to be doing its utmost to preserve and strengthen a reserve fighting power for spring and summer.

Any hopes of a major victory may be slim without significant further U.S. and European aid, making reserves critical if Ukraine hopes to continue grinding down Russian combat strength in the continuing war of attrition.


January 2024