Dug in amid the rolling hills west of Bakhmut, the tanks of the Ukrainian army’s 28th Mechanized Brigade are helping to hold the line against a growing Russian offensive.
They are battered and bruised by nearly a year of combat, but despite their age they are cherished by their crews.
The young tank commander, who goes by the call sign David, sees his unit’s role as crucial in holding the line, and preventing a Russian advance towards the straggling industrial town of Konstantinyvka.
“We just work against them. If we don’t, they will come closer and we will lose our houses and families. We stand here to let people peacefully live in their houses. If the Russians come to Konstantinyvka – what will happen? They will destroy it, not leaving a stone standing.”
The 28th has had a long war already. It was in the south helping to liberate Kherson before being sent half-way across the country. But it prides itself on one of the lowest casualty rates among Ukrainian brigades.
As David talks, the air is split by the sound of outgoing fire from tanks and artillery. A howitzer is in action on the other side of the hill. Their targets are positions held by the Russian mercenary group Wagner south of Bakhmut, several miles away.
But the 28th uses its 125-millimeter shells sparingly. “We have problems with ammunition, we are running low on it,” David says. “But that’s the only problem we have. We get enough spare parts, our commanders work all the time to sustain and repair the tanks.”
Sometimes, all it needs is the appearance of a tank in forward positions to scatter Wagner fighters, who are mostly lightly-armed infantry.
“When we come and fire, the enemy goes silent for two to three days,” David says. “They won’t fire at our guys in the trenches. If our tanks and artillery don’t fire, our infantry will suffer.”
Recent video geolocated by CNN south of Bakhmut showed two Ukrainian tanks advancing towards Wagner positions, as the Russian positions were also attacked by Ukrainian drones from above.
But the waves keep coming. Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the armed forces in the east, said Friday: “The Russians are trying to break through our defenses, ignoring enormous losses of their own. It used to be a barrage of fire, now it is barrage of personnel.
“Their key weapon now is manpower. In Bakhmut, those are the Wagner PMC but not exclusively…in Vuhledar, the key assault forces are marines and infantry units, along with conscripts.”
Vuhledar – another town in Donetsk – has also come under intense attack in the last few days.
Russia brings up reinforcements
Like all Ukrainian units, the 28th is sensitive to any filming that might give away its locations. Minutes after we are asked not to film anything that might be geolocated, a drone flies over the site.
The men squint into the sky but soon relax: it’s not Russian. In fact, David says, “for a tank crew it is easy working here. It is difficult for enemy artillery to find our tanks or other vehicles. They don’t have enough forces to locate and hit our vehicles.”
Still, the tanks are moved frequently. “We can move into position, fire and easily come back.”
That advantage may be lost as the Russians bring up reinforcements, including howitzers and multiple-launch rocket systems. These will be critical days and weeks in defending the roughly 40% of Donetsk region still in Ukrainian hands.
The question is whether Ukrainian forces can hold their current positions – before being reinforced by the arrival of scores of Western tanks, which could take up to two months.
Asked whether CNN could film a “trophy tank” that the 28th seized from the Russians, its crew laugh and say: “In return for an Abrams.”
The Western main battle tanks pledged in the last week cannot arrive soon enough. They’d bring greater firepower and survivability at a time when tank warfare has become an important part of the conflict.
Hamish de Bretton Gordon, former commanding officer of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment in the British Army, says the Challengers being sent by the UK are vastly superior to anything the Russians have.
“They can fire accurately on the move and at night across rough terrain. They can carry more rounds (50+) to 30 on a T-72. And they are much better protected. A Challenger L2 will probably take four or five direct hits from a T-72 and survive – while one hit [from a Challenger] will destroy a T-72.”
Western tanks would also allow Ukraine to conduct combined arms maneuvers if supported by infantry and artillery. A Challenger can move up to 300 miles in a day without need for replenishment.
Ukrainian officials have told CNN that they want between 400 and 600 Western tanks to help change the course of the war.
De Bretton Gordon says that 300 tanks would amount to a division “and would allow Ukraine to conduct devastating and wide-ranging attacks to dislocate the static Russians. Plus, they would be supported by the 1,000 or so (Russian tanks) which Ukraine already has.”
Ideal terrain for tanks
Much of southern and eastern Ukraine is ideal terrain for combinations of modern Western tanks and armored fighting vehicles to spearhead a counteroffensive.
Western tanks would also help deal with the sort of threat posed by the waves of Wagner fighters. Leopard 2s, Abrams and British Challengers all carry heavy machine guns, which would devastate infantry in open land.
The Leopard 2 has another advantage, given the incredible rate at which ammunition is being used in Ukraine. The ammunition for its 120 mm gun is widely available among NATO armies.
US Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, NATO’s supreme allied commander, said last week that, “in the end, a tank simply comes down to, conceptually, a balance between firepower, mobility and protection.” In each category, Western tanks outscore their Russian counterparts.
The Ukrainians’ one advantage in operating the Soviet-era tanks is familiarity.
“It depends on the crew, not the tank,” David says, as he leans on his T-64. “An experienced crew can deal with any situation. Among all the tanks, T-72, T-80, T-90, this is my favorite. Everyone can take another crew member’s place. The mechanic can be a commander if I am wounded.”
He adds that the crew can maintain the T-64 themselves. “If the gun breaks down during a combat mission we have enough experience to fix it.”
Those combat missions are likely to come thick and fast in the weeks to come, before Western tanks begin to arrive in numbers in the spring.