The first of 14 Challenger 2 tanks supplied by Britain has arrived in Ukraine: part of the West’s massive commitment to defeating the Russian invasion.
They are joined by 18 Leopard 2 tanks from Germany, with the US promising 31 M1 Abrams tanks that the tanks will soon be on the battlefield Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov yesterday described the Challenger 2s as ‘wonderful machines’.
He is not mistaken. The 75-ton Challenger 2, developed by BAE Systems (then called Vickers Defense Systems), has no equal in military history. A 120mm rifled gun could penetrate armor up to two miles away with amazing accuracy. It holds the record for the longest tank-on-tank kill shot, destroying an Iraqi vehicle from a distance of 4.7 kilometers (nearly three miles) during the 1991 Gulf War.
But while these tanks will undoubtedly be game-changers, they will not alone determine the end of the Ukraine war — and certainly not in the coming weeks or months.
The truth is, it’s a mind-bogglingly complex conflict, where firepower and modern equipment are only part of the equation – with profound lessons on how to deal with them.
The first of 14 Challenger 2 tanks (pictured) supplied by Britain has arrived in Ukraine: part of the West’s massive commitment to defeating the Russian invasion
Putin (pictured) will not allow his forces to withdraw, no matter how much punishment is imposed
As a former British military intelligence officer and NATO planner, I spent 26 years preparing to face Soviet-style maneuvers during the Cold War. I am fully aware that Ukraine’s survival as an independent state will depend on how each side deals with multiple factors.
One such factor, as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of European history knows, was the weather on the Eastern Front.
Russia’s long-awaited “spring offensive” this year failed. The calculations behind this were flawed. The frozen ice melted rapidly, turning large swathes of the country into a swamp. Last year we saw what happened when the tanks tried to advance over the mud of Ukraine. Despite the caterpillar tracks, the 45-ton weight of the Russian T-72s meant that many of them sank quickly and had to be abandoned. Ukrainian farmers gleefully plundered the wreckage.
This means that Russian tanks are, for now, largely confined to tracks and roads, making them easy targets for ambushes. But the same restrictions apply to Western tanks, which are even heavier. Even a NATO infantry fighting vehicle like the American M2 Bradley weighs at least 25 tons.
The British Army is proud to claim that no Challenger 2 has ever been lost to enemy action, and the Ukrainians will be intent not to waste these exceptional tanks by risking them in swampy terrain. It may be June before the ground dries up enough to spread it in full force.
By then, munitions supplied by the West will flow into the combat zones. President Zelensky ordered 300 tanks: it is estimated that his allies, including other countries of the former Soviet Union, would provide 700 or more tanks.
350 infantry fighting vehicles and more than 1,000 armored personnel carriers have already been promised, as well as at least 320 self-propelled guns, mostly 155-mm artillery.
Training to use this disparate combination will prove to be very time consuming. In peacetime, the military is believed to spend two years preparing a tank brigade for combat. Ukrainian crews are trying to learn everything in just a few months.
It is a huge undertaking and this applies to every aspect of the war. After making rapid advances in the aftermath of last year’s invasion, Russia has occupied 51,000 square miles of Ukrainian territory.
Since launching the counteroffensive last summer, the Ukrainians have recaptured about 11,300 square miles — pushing the enemy out of Kiev, Kherson, and Kharkiv. Some parts of the operation were relatively straightforward: for example, trapping the Russians on the western side of the Dnipro River, cutting off their retreat.
But Russia still owns 40,000 square miles (17 percent) of Ukrainian territory, including 10,425 square miles of Crimea, which Ukraine’s naval chief, Vice Admiral Oleksiy Nezbaba, pledged this week to reclaim.
Map showing the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia during the conflict
Former Colonel Philip Ingram is a former senior intelligence and security officer
The liberation of Crimea may be possible in the long term, but it will require a massive amphibious assault on a D-Day scale. Even if a bridge could be created, the Ukrainian army would have to recapture the peninsula mile after mile – and many residents are pro-Russian.
Crimea was not seen as a Ukrainian territory until after Stalin’s death in 1953 and it remained under Russian control again for nearly a decade. Victory will never be guaranteed, even if that massive campaign could be waged.
However, this possibility is dwarfed by the scale of the conflict on the mainland. The battle front in eastern Ukraine is more than 700 miles long, the distance from London to Barcelona. Moscow committed virtually all of the Russian army to the invasion.
Its forces are organized into Battalions Tactical Groups (BTGs), which consist of up to 40 tanks along with artillery, armored vehicles and engineering support. In all, Putin has 168 BTUs, each a stand-alone fighting force with full autonomy — and 115 of them are now located in Ukraine.
But even this massive military presence is not enough to manage the entire front line, which is why Russia is focusing on pivotal points such as Bakhmut in the Donetsk region. Zelensky accepted the challenge, and threw his army into the fight for Bakhmut despite heavy losses. He knows winning there will prove he can win anywhere.
good chance. BTGs are seriously under power, with only 30 to 40 percent of their full human strength. Their military intelligence proved insufficient and they fell back on brute force and their overwhelming superiority in artillery firepower.
British intelligence also reports that a new Russian tank regiment—part of the Army’s III Corps—suffered heavy losses, including “a large proportion of its own tanks”. Operating out of Avdiivka, near Bakhmut, the regiment was allegedly mired in drunkenness, low morale, and poor discipline.
The latest figures show that the Russians have 1,330,900 men on the ground, compared to just half a million Ukrainians. They have 4,182 aircraft, of which 1,531 are helicopters and 773 are combat aircraft. Ukraine comes very far behind, with 312 aircraft, including 113 helicopters and 69 fighters.
Russia has 12,566 tanks, 151,641 armored vehicles, 6,575 self-propelled guns, and 3,887 mobile missile launchers. In each case, that’s at least four times what Ukraine has and sometimes six.
If wars were won by firepower alone, this war would have ended long ago. But Russia lacks a crucial military component – unity of command. Their generals are at odds.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the notorious Wagner paramilitary group, has political ambitions to succeed Putin, and openly despises the commander of the Russian forces, General Valery Gerasimov, and the Kremlin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu.
A Ukrainian soldier checks a tank’s machine gun after ammunition is loaded during a military exercise near the front line, amid a Russian attack on Ukraine, in Zaporizhia region, Ukraine on Wednesday.
Faced with a smaller but highly motivated army to repel the invasion, all the Russians could do was try to hold on to the occupied territory. Ukrainian forces will try to punch holes in the front line, but unless they can sever supply chains, their enemy is unlikely to be defeated. Putin will not allow his forces to withdraw, no matter what punishment is imposed.
Instead, he is playing for time, waiting for elections in the United States and Britain next year, which he will do everything he can to rig. Russia is already ramping up its cyber operations, flooding social media in the West with fake news.
If the Republicans take the White House, US support for Ukraine can be largely withdrawn. And if Labor wins the general election in 2024, the CND factor will pressure Keir Starmer to drop Zelensky.
To achieve this, Putin will amplify his nuclear threats, trying to force the West into submission. If his battlefield losses continue, he might use a “tactical” nuclear weapon—say, dropping a kiloton bomb into the Black Sea—as a final warning.
The message for Zelensky and the West will be muddled but unequivocal: Next time, the target will be a Ukrainian city, perhaps Kiev. If that happens, Russia’s unspoken allies like China, India and Pakistan will give up even their covert support. It would be an insane suicidal act.
But amid all the military statistics and data, one fact is clear. We cannot count on Putin to act rationally. And in a war far from over, that means we must choose every step we take with absolute care.
- Former Colonel Philip Ingram is a former senior intelligence and security officer and co-founder of the Independent Defense Corps.