The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion They said tanks were obsolete. Now, Ukraine can’t get enough of them.

A Danish Leopard 2A7 battle tank fires its main gun during a live-fire exercise in Estonia on Wednesday. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)
5 min

Antony Beevor, a former tank commander with the British Army during the Cold War, is the author of “Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921.”

Vladimir Putin, obsessed with the Red Army’s capture of Berlin in 1945, clearly thought that his columns of tanks advancing on Kyiv from Belarus almost a year ago would bring rapid victory. Many of the crews adopted the idea of their World War II predecessors and attached iron bedsteads to the exterior of their armor, hoping that they would detonate any antitank missiles prematurely. Instead, it raised the profile of their vehicles and attracted the attention of Ukrainian groups hunting them on foot with shoulder-borne missile launchers.

Those hunters took to their task with enthusiasm, shredding Russia’s armored columns and sending Putin’s forces reeling back toward the border. This extraordinary debacle prompted many military commentators in the West to conclude that the era of the tank was finally over.

How wrong they were. Over the past few months, we’ve seen what amounts to a remarkable revival of the role of the main battle tank — and by the very same people who seemed to be accelerating its demise last spring. Ukraine’s pleas for heavy armor have finally been answered. After long hesitation, 12 Western countries, known as the “tank coalition,” have responded with promises of Leopards, Abrams and Challengers — amounting to more than 200 of them, almost an entire armored division.

But the Ukrainians want even more. They clearly don’t think tanks are obsolete — and they’re right.

Press Enter to skip to end of carousel
Opinions on the war in Ukraine after one year
One year ago, Russia invaded Ukraine. Post Opinions is marking the anniversary with columns looking at all that has transpired and what may lie ahead.
Post Opinions partnered with the Brookings Institution to visualize the war’s effects on Ukraine’s economy, immigration trends and more. Together, these indicators suggest the fighting is unlikely to end anytime soon, write Michael O’Hanlon, Constanze Stelzenmüller and David Wessel of Brookings.
The Editorial Board looked for solutions, calling on the United States and its European allies to intensify their military, economic and diplomatic support for Kyiv. Vladimir Putin hopes for a stalemate, the Editorial Board writes, and the West needs to fuel a game-changing shift in momentum.
In an op-ed adapted from her Feb. 9 speech at the “Rebuilding Ukraine, Rebuilding the World” conference at Harvard, Oleksandra Matviichuk writes that it is not only wrong but also immoral not to provide weapons for Ukraine.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling describes the Ukraine war as a slugfest, not a stalemate. He outlines five phases of the war and predicts that Ukraine’s forces will ultimately prevail.
Columnist Jason Willick looks at the war through the lens of U.S. politics. President Biden, he says, is positioned to take advantage of divided government by using as his foil Republicans who oppose continued support for Ukraine.
Antony Beevor, a former tank commander with the British Army, says the Ukraine war has revived the role of the main battle tank.
Columnist David Ignatius examines three main characters of the war: Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden. A year into the war, Ignatius writes, Putin’s staying power begins to seem questionable, while Zelensky and Biden have never looked stronger.
Columnist George F. Will discusses the importance of continued support for Ukraine, writing that Putin can win only if Ukraine’s allies neglect to maximize their moral and material advantages.
Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard, reconsiders what it would mean to win in Ukraine. A new Cold War, he writes, might not be the worst outcome.


End of carousel

Now, it is certainly true that modern antitank missiles — such as the NLAWs and Javelins that proved so effective against Putin’s Cold War-era T-72 tanks — have given infantry formidable new defenses against tanks. Military commentators have also cited the devastating destruction of armored vehicles by Azerbaijani drones in the second Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 2020.

Even before the Russians’ humiliating defeat ahead of reaching Kyiv, some NATO armies were already planning a switch from main battle tanks to lighter armored fighting vehicles. (The British Army placed its hopes on the Ajax fighting vehicle, which turned out to suffer some serious design flaws.) The U.S. Marine Corps also recently announced plans to reduce its tank formations as part of a massive reorganization — but this has less do with skepticism about tanks than with the Marines’ increasing focus on the Far East and Pacific theater, where the terrain is less favorable to the heavy Abrams.

But the Ukrainians face different challenges: above all, how to retake territory wrested from them by a numerically vastly superior Russian force. And offense is the realm where main battle tanks, when used correctly, can produce unrivaled results. Much depends on how they are deployed in combined arms operations, preferably with drone support and air cover from fighters that might yet be provided by European allies. Ukrainian crews have shown great ingenuity in extending the range of the 125mm main armament on captured Russian tanks by up to 10 kilometers. This is done by increasing their elevation and by targeting with drone spotters.

Once they arrive on the battlefield, the Ukrainians’ new weapons should prove instrumental in resisting any renewed Russian onslaughts. But if Kyiv can master the art of combining its tanks with infantry, drones and air assets, the Ukrainian army might well want to punch a hole in Russian defense lines in eastern or southern Donbas to provoke a chaotic retreat.

See more charts on the war in Ukraine

In either case, far from seeing the end of the tank era predicted so recently, we would witness a full-blooded replay of World War II tank tactics. The compulsion to summon echoes of World War II should, however, be firmly resisted even if the Ukrainians do decide to use the tanks together as an armored fist. The contemporary problem they face could well be an attack by drone swarms, so much will depend on the rapid delivery of fighter aircraft. Allied tanks are far better protected than the old Soviet-era T-72s, but their tracks remain vulnerable and a hit there could bring them to a halt.

Even so, the West is clearly betting that an influx of main battle tanks can help the Ukrainians make important territorial gains — of which the most critical would involve Crimea. Kevin Kühnert, the secretary general of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s own Social Democratic Party, recently stated that there were “no restrictions on the territories that Ukraine could liberate with the help of German tanks,” even if Scholz himself clearly remains nervous.

The thinking is clear. Putin’s reputation and support in Russia were built on the seizure of Crimea in 2014. Its recapture with the help of the “tank coalition” thus represents the best way of bringing him down and avoiding the dangers of a frozen conflict. Only a relatively small advance is needed to bring his bridge over the Kerch Strait to the Crimean peninsula under direct fire, provoking a panic-stricken exit by recent Russian settlers. Whether NATO tanks will arrive in time to accomplish the breakthrough needed to achieve that climax will be one of the key questions in the outcome of the war.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.