Preemptive attacks to gain an advantage or reinforce defenses along the front lines before Ukraine receives Western tanks are options Russia can choose.
The United States, Germany, Poland, and other allies of Ukraine said on January 26 that they would send dozens of modern tanks to support Kyiv in its confrontation with Moscow.
Military experts say these mobile armored vehicles are modern and capable of higher lethality than any tank owned by Russia. The Ukrainian leadership has for months been calling on the West to provide at least 300 tanks.
Although Western tanks, such as the British Challenger 2, the German-made Leopard 2, or the American Abrams, could help Ukraine significantly in the conflict, the Russian military probably won’t have to encounter them before spring.
Ukrainian forces must first learn to operate these complex devices and then undergo training in their use in coordinated formations with infantry.
Meanwhile, according to military observers, Russian commanders will try to guess where and how Ukraine might use the new weapon and assess how best to respond. On the other hand, Moscow also needs to decide how to balance defensive and offensive measures and whether to strike first or wait for a major counter-offensive from Ukraine, which is expected to take place in the spring.
“It’s clear that the Russians will target the tanks,” said retired US Army lieutenant-general Stephen Twitty. He predicts that if Ukraine can mobilize enough new weapons, the Russian military will not be able to stop them. However, this is a challenging goal.
Ukraine currently has hundreds of Soviet-designed tanks from its own arsenal, supplied by former Warsaw Pact allies or those obtained from the Russian military. However, their number is still smaller than that of similar Russian tanks.
Thanks to their mobility, protection, and high damage potential, tanks are powerful weapons. They are most effective in coordinated combat, combining multiple land and air systems. Ukrainian troops will be trained in Western European countries to be able to master combat skills, but this process takes time.
So Russia will have time to adjust and adapt. The preparation steps can be very diverse, from strengthening physical defenses with fences and trenches to reinforcing one’s own tank fleet or pre-emptively attacking Ukrainian military positions.
Russian tanks are not as modern as Western models, but Moscow dominates in numbers, potentially in the thousands. Uralvagonzavod, Russia’s largest tank manufacturer, is also ramping up production under pressure from the Kremlin.
“The correlation in numbers is leaning towards Russia,” said Dara Massicot, an expert from the global research organization RAND Corp, based in California, USA.
Mikhail Barabanov, an expert at the Center for Strategic Analysis and Technology based in Moscow, said that a small number of Abrams tanks would not be able to change the battlefield situation in Ukraine significantly.
“The purpose of the West supplying weapons in limited quantities to Ukraine is not to bring about a decisive victory but mainly to wear down Russian forces,” he said.
However, he noted that Western tanks have many modern weapons with superior firepower, which puts Russia at a disadvantage if engaged in combat at long distances. Western tanks also have more precise targeting capabilities, with better night vision, allowing them to spot enemies before they are detected.
“Normally, in a tank-to-tank battle, the side that shoots first wins,” said Ed Arnold, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
Russia has lost a large number of tanks since the conflict broke out. However, according to Massicot, they still have many capable vehicles. Instead, the bigger obstacle for Russia lies in human resources.
“Russia’s problem is that it doesn’t have enough well-trained tank crews because they’ve lost so many people from the first day of the conflict to now,” she said. Russia is training a significant portion of the 300,000 troops mobilized at the end of September last year, but it is not clear how many are trained in tank warfare.
If Russia deploys more tanks, it will face the question of how to use them effectively. Moscow could hold them back from dealing with new Western tanks supplying Ukraine, or it could choose to act earlier before the Western tanks were ready for action.
Russian social media channels in recent days are more inclined to act quickly to attack Ukraine first before they receive the tanks.
However, Russia is also struggling to gain control of strategic positions from the Ukrainian military. Therefore, their ability to achieve quick victories is uncertain.
“Russia has only achieved a few small victories at a relatively high cost” and mainly uses ground forces, Arnold said. A more complex attack would require more resources and a longer training process.
“If the Russians put all their energy into preparing for offensive operations and fail, that will make defensive operations much more difficult, and they will be vulnerable if Ukraine counterattacks,” he noted.
General Twitty said that Ukrainian forces have so far demonstrated a better will to fight than the minimally equipped Russian military.
“Now, with modern equipment, strong will to fight, and perseverance, they can completely change the situation,” he said. “What they need is overwhelming combat firepower to make a difference on the battlefield.”
Russian forces can also choose to improve their defensive position instead of attacking, increasing mines, digging trenches, or placing obstacles along the front line to hinder Ukrainian tanks.
Another option for Moscow is to continue with previous plans. Russia’s tactics have changed little throughout the conflict, while Ukraine has consistently employed diverse and ever-evolving combat approaches. Russia’s strategy relied heavily on large artillery and infantry sites, although sometimes, the loss of lives and ammunition was fruitless.
After Ukraine began hitting Russian targets last summer with precision weapons, including US-supplied HIMARS rocket artillery, Moscow adjusted by moving several bases and depots. Out of range of Kyiv’s fire. But according to Western military officials, Russia still has little change in tactics.
“The Russians do not seem to attach too much importance to the West’s transfer of tanks to Ukraine,” said Yohann Michel, a defense and military analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in London, England.
He suggested that comments made by Russia, downplaying the threat level of Western tanks, could be a sign that Moscow will not significantly change its strategy.
Michel further notes that Russian decisions regarding battlefield tactics can also be influenced by other factors unrelated to Western tanks that are unknown to outsiders.
“The West tends to believe that everything Russia does is in response to what we do,” noted Michel. “But we’re not the only consideration, maybe not the first.”