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.”
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.
Opinions on the war in Ukraine after one year
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.
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.