Can Russia’s T-72 Tanks Overwhelm Ukraine?

Can Russia’s T-72 Tanks Overwhelm Ukraine?

Ukrainian forces have shown an ability to effectively use anti-armor weapons to blunt, slow, or simply destroy Russian mechanized attacks.


Ukrainian forces have destroyed more than 2,000 Russian tanks and 4,300 armored personnel vehicles (APVs) since the beginning of the war, a number which reflects the intensity and effectiveness of Ukrainian ambushes, anti-armor tactics, and intense will to fight. 

These statistics, released September 2 by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, specify that as many as twelve Russian tanks and twenty-one APVs have been destroyed in the past few days. 


There are several variables to consider, as Ukrainian forces have shown an ability to effectively use anti-armor weapons to blunt, slow, or simply destroy Russian mechanized attacks. At the same time, the Global Firepower Index lists that the Russian military operates over 12,400 tanks which suggest that Russia will be able to recover from battlefield losses. However, there are also reports indicating that thousands of Russian tanks may not be operational or fit for service.

Many of the tanks in Russia’s arsenal are Cold War-era T-72 main battle tanks. The Soviet-built tanks are vulnerable to anti-armor weapons attacks launched by dismounted Ukrainian soldiers. The Russians likely operate more capable 1990s-era T-90 tanks as well, yet the large numbers of T-72s in the Russian arsenal mean that forces on the battlefield are primarily operating 1970s-era tanks. Yet, even if Russia still possesses thousands of tanks, military leaders in the Kremlin may be reluctant to use them in large numbers given how vulnerable they have proven to be against Ukrainian anti-armor tactics

A report from Business Insider published pictures of Russian tanks with makeshift “cages” placed on top to defend against attacks from Javelins, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and other anti-tank weapons. However, observers pointed out that these cages were abandoned in many cases since they made it too difficult for Russian soldiers to escape if the tank was hit.  Certainly, the Ukrainians have likely been using elevated terrain, buildings, and other structures to attack from hidden positions to destroy incoming Russian vehicles. Ukrainian anti-armor success also suggests that perhaps Russian T-72s and T-90s lack the kind of modern sensors, targeting, and active protection systems sufficient to offset the advantages of Ukrainian anti-tank tactics. T-72s have been mass-produced and exported to as many as forty countries over the years, including Ukraine, so the range, resolution, and effectiveness of its targeting sensors are well known by Ukrainian forces. 

Familiarity with the operational capacity of T-72 tanks gives Ukrainian forces an idea of how far away they need to be or how they might need to position themselves to launch successful attacks. Iraqi T-72s, for instance, were destroyed by U.S. Abrams tanks during the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom more than a decade later, in part, because the Abrams was able to identify, track, and destroy the T-72 from stand-off distances thanks to its high-fidelity sensors known to operate at farther ranges. 

Yet another key factor to consider is Ukraine's fleet of T-72 tanks, which has grown considerably since the beginning of the war due to Poland and Czech donations. While Ukrainian tanks may be less impactful against Russian T-72s than anti-armor weapons, mechanized platforms could help Ukrainian forces reinforce defensive positions or retake territory. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.