Three months into its wider war on Ukraine, Russia is running out of tanks.
Well, working tanks. In fact, the Kremlin keeps thousands of old armored vehicles in long-term storage. But many of them no longer are usable.
The lack of armor reserves, combined with problems producing new tanks, could begin to weigh on the Russian war effort. As Ukrainian gunners and missileers continue knocking out enemy tanks by the hundreds, Russian units increasingly will roll into battle with whatever old and obsolete tanks still are in working order.
And that could accelerate the rate of loss as the Ukrainians expend less effort, and fewer missiles and artillery rounds, knocking out more and more geriatric tanks.
The result, in time, could be a death spiral in the Russian armor corps. The question is how quickly that might happen. Can the Ukrainians destroy the Russian tank force fast enough to prevent the Russians from expanding the territory they control in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region—and digging in?
The general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces a few days ago noted the first sign of collapse in the Russian armor corps. “As a result of losses during hostilities, the Russian enemy was forced to withdraw from storage T-62 tanks to recruit reserve battalion tactical groups that are being formed to be sent to Ukraine,” the staff noted.
The T-62 is an obsolete tank. The 41-ton tank with its 115-millimeter main gun and steel armor was in production in the Soviet Union from 1961 to 1975. It was the USSR’s most important tank until the T-72 entered service in 1969.
The Soviet army in the 1980s began shifting the T-62 to second-line units. The Russian army fully retired the type in the 2010s, by which time the T-62—a contemporary of the U.S. Army’s M-60—was hopelessly outmatched by modern Western tanks.
Thousands of T-62s went into storage, many of them simply lying in rows in sprawling outdoor vehicle parks, where there is no protection from rain and snow. Had Russian president Vladimir Putin chosen not to widen his war in Ukraine, those tanks might’ve simply rusted away.
But Putin did widen the war. And now the Ukrainian army is destroying, on average, at least four Russian tanks a day—and damaging or capturing others. In 91 days of fighting, the Ukrainians have knocked out 391 tanks that outside analysts can confirm.
That might not seem like a lot for an army that, on paper, possessed more than 2,800 active tanks before the Feb. 23 invasion of Ukraine. But not all of the active tanks were in good repair. Factor in battle damage to many hundreds of T-64s, T-72s, T-80s and T-90s and it’s obvious why the Ukrainians began observing T-62s arriving near the front lines.
This week videos and photos circulated on social media confirming the Ukrainian general staff’s claim. Old T-62s indeed are making their way via train to the railhead in Russian-occupied Melitopol in southern Ukraine.
That the Russians are reactivating T-62s lends credence to what historian Chris Owen explained in a recent Tweet thread: that many, if not most, of the roughly 10,000 tanks in storage in Russia no longer are in any kind of working condition owing to the ravages of weather and time.
Some T-62s are usable because they’re simpler than more modern types are, with fewer delicate electronics. Also, there are more of them and thus a greater chance a few battalions’ worth of T-62s escaped catastrophic rust.
The shift to T-62s is happening as Russian industry struggles to import from Western countries the high-tech components that modern tanks require. Russia’s only tank manufacturer, Uralvagonzavod, halted production back in March.
The appearance of T-62s near the Ukrainian front isn’t the only sign that the Kremlin is growing desperate. Having lost as many as 15,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen killed in action in three months, the Russian armed services also are short on trained personnel.
It’s not for no reason that the Kremlin has been paying the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian mercenary firm, to round out depleted army formations and even pilot air force planes.
On Sunday, Ukrainian air-defense troops in eastern Ukraine shot down a Russian Su-25 attack jet. The BBC confirmed the man who died behind the Su-25’s controls was Kanamat Botashev.
The 63-year-old Botashev was retired. He left the Russian air force as a general back in 2012 after “borrowing” an Su-27 fighter—a type he was not qualified to fly—and crashing it after a brief, acrobatic joyride. Following his retirement, Botashev reportedly signed on with Wagner, which hired him out to the air force.
Old tanks. Mercenary pilots. These are signs of deep degradation in the Russian military as it concentrates its best remaining forces for a fresh offensive in eastern Ukraine aimed at surrounding the city of Severodonetsk.
That offensive is succeeding, albeit at great cost. In a week of hard fighting, the Russians have advanced nearly 10 miles north from Popasna, a town on the southern edge of the salient that Severodonetsk anchors on the east. If Russian battalions can advance another 15 miles or so, they might be able fully to cut off Severodonetsk and the thousands of Ukrainian troops garrisoned there.
All the same, it’s not hard to see the current offensive as a last-ditch effort for Russia. It’s not clear that an army increasingly depending on ancient T-62 tanks will be capable of sustained offensive operations for much longer.
But a prolonged offensive might not be the Kremlin’s plan. After capturing Severodonetsk, the Russian army could dig in—and focus on defending the vast swathes of eastern and southern Ukraine it already has seized. Defense after all requires fewer modern tanks.