The first of 14 Challenger 2 tanks supplied by Britain has arrived in Ukraine – part of the West’s colossal commitment to defeat the Russian invasion.
They are joined by 18 Leopard 2 tanks from Germany, with the promise of 31 M1 Abrams from the US. Promising that the tanks would soon be on the battlefield, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov yesterday described the Challenger 2 as “fantastic machines”.
Is not wrong. The 75-ton Challenger 2, developed by BAE Systems (then called Vickers Defense Systems) has no equal in military history. Its 120mm rifled cannon can pierce armor at two miles with astonishing accuracy. It holds the record for the longest tank-on-tank “kill shot,” destroying an Iraqi vehicle from 4.7 kilometers away (nearly three miles) during the 1991 Gulf War.
But while these tanks are undoubtedly revolutionary, they will not alone mean the end of the Ukrainian war, and certainly not in the coming weeks or months.
The truth is that this is a mind-bogglingly complex conflict, with firepower and cutting-edge equipment only part of the equation, and with profound lessons for how we should approach it.
The first of 14 Challenger 2 tanks (pictured) supplied by Britain has arrived in Ukraine – part of the West’s colossal commitment to defeat the Russian invasion.
Putin (pictured) will not allow his forces to withdraw, no matter how much punishment is imposed.
As a former senior British military intelligence officer and NATO planner, I spent 26 years preparing to counter Soviet-style maneuvers during the Cold War. I am well aware that Ukraine’s survival as an independent nation will depend on how each side deals with multiple factors.
One of them, as anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of European history knows, is the weather on the Eastern Front.
Russia’s long-awaited “spring offensive” this year has failed. The calculations behind this were flawed. The frozen ground has melted rapidly, turning large swathes of the country into a quagmire. Last year we saw what happened when tanks tried to advance through the mud of Ukraine. Despite their tracks, the weight of the 45-ton Russian T-72s meant that many quickly became stuck and had to be abandoned. Ukrainian farmers gleefully looted the wreckage of the plane.
This means that Russian tanks are, for the moment, largely confined to tracks and highways, 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 say that no Challenger 2 has ever been lost to enemy action and the Ukrainians will be determined not to waste these exceptional tanks by risking them in swampy terrain. It could be June before the ground is dry enough to deploy them in full effect.
By then, Western-supplied munitions will be arriving in battle zones. President Zelensky asked for 300 tanks: it is estimated that his allies, including other former Soviet states, will provide 700 or more.
Already 350 infantry fighting vehicles and more than 1,000 armored personnel carriers have been pledged, as well as at least 320 self-propelled guns, most of them 155mm artillery.
Training to use this disparate kit will take a long time. In peacetime, the Army estimates it will take two years to prepare a tank brigade for combat. Ukrainian crews try to learn everything in just a few months.
It is a gigantic undertaking and applies to all aspects of war. After its rapid advances following last year’s invasion, Russia controlled 51,000 square miles of Ukrainian territory.
Since the counterattack began last summer, the Ukrainians have recaptured about 11,300 square miles, driving the enemy out of kyiv, Kherson and Kharkiv. Some parts of the operation were relatively simple: for example, trapping the Russians on the western side of the Dnieper River, which cut off their retreat.
But Russia still owns 40,000 square miles (17 percent) of Ukrainian territory, including the 10,425 square miles of Crimea, which Ukrainian naval commander Vice Admiral Oleksiy Neizhpapa promised to retake this week.
Map showing the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia during the conflict
Former Colonel Philip Ingram is a former senior intelligence and security officer.
Liberating Crimea might be possible in the long term, but it would require a massive amphibious assault on the scale of D-Day. Even if a bridgehead could be established, the Ukrainian military would have to recapture the peninsula kilometer by kilometer, and many of its inhabitants are pro-Russian.
Crimea was considered Ukrainian territory only after Stalin’s death in 1953 and has been back under Russian control for almost a decade. Victory would never be guaranteed, even if such a mammoth campaign could ever be mounted.
However, even that perspective is dwarfed by the scale of the conflict on the continent. The battlefront in eastern Ukraine is more than 700 miles long, the distance between London and Barcelona. Moscow has committed virtually the entire Russian army to the invasion.
Its forces are organized into battalion tactical groups (BTG), consisting of up to 40 tanks with artillery, armored vehicles and engineering support. In total, Putin has 168 BTG, each of which is an autonomous combat force with full autonomy, and 115 of them are now in Ukraine.
But even that immense military presence is not enough to man the entire front line, which is why Russia is concentrating on focal points like Bakhmut in the Donetsk region. Zelensky accepted the challenge and launched his army into the fight for Bakhmut despite heavy losses. He knows that winning there will prove that he can win anywhere.
Your chances are good. The BTG is seriously understaffed, with only 30 to 40 percent of its total personnel. Their military intelligence has proven inadequate and they have resorted to brute force and their overwhelming superiority in artillery firepower.
British intelligence also suggests that a new Russian tank regiment (part of the 3rd Army Corps) has suffered heavy losses, including a “large proportion of its tanks.” The regiment is fighting in the town of Avdiivka, near Bakhmut, and is reportedly 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, including 1,531 helicopters and 773 fighter aircraft; Ukraine is 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 rocket launchers. In all cases, that is at least four times more than Ukraine owns, and sometimes six.
If firepower alone won wars, it would have ended a long time ago. But Russia lacks a crucial military component: unity of command. Her generals disagree.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the notorious Wagner paramilitary group, has political ambitions to succeed Putin and openly despises both the commander of Russian forces, General Valery Gerasimov, and the Kremlin’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu.
A Ukrainian soldier checks a tank’s machine gun after loading ammunition during military training near the front line, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, on Wednesday.
Against a smaller but highly motivated army trying to repel the invasion, the only thing the Russians can do is try to hold on to occupied territory. Ukrainian forces will try to punch holes in the front line, but unless they can cut supply chains, their enemy is unlikely to be defeated. Putin will not allow his forces to withdraw, no matter how much punishment is imposed on them.
Instead, he is buying time, waiting for elections in the United States and Britain next year, which he will do everything he can to manipulate. Russia is already stepping up its cyber operations, flooding social media in the West with fake news.
If Republicans take the White House, American support for Ukraine could largely withdraw. And if Labor wins the general election in 2024, the CND element will put pressure on Keir Starmer to abandon Zelensky.
To achieve this, Putin will magnify his nuclear threats, trying to intimidate the West into submission. If his battlefield losses continue, he could even use a “tactical” nuclear weapon (e.g. dropping a one kiloton bomb into the Black Sea) as a final warning.
The message to Zelensky and the West would be unhinged but unambiguous: next time, the target will be a Ukrainian city, probably kyiv. If that happens, Russia’s undeclared allies such as China, India and Pakistan would abandon even covert support. It would be the act of a suicidal madman.
But among all the military statistics and data, one fact is evident. We cannot trust Putin to behave rationally. And in a war so far from being concluded, that means we must choose every step we take with absolute care.
- Former Colonel Philip Ingram is a former senior intelligence and security official and co-founder of the Independent Defense Authority.