The Russian army has massed around 1,200 tanks for a possible invasion of Ukraine. The tanks include the latest T-90s plus upgraded T-72s.
Across the border, the Ukrainian army has mobilized its own armor for a possible defensive campaign. Ukraine possesses some of the same tank models that Russia does, but Kiev’s best tank—an updated T-64—is uniquely Ukrainian.
In Soviet doctrine, which the Russian and Ukrainian armies both follow, tanks rarely fight tanks. But if and when Russia overtly invades Ukraine and sharply escalates the seven-year, frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine, tanks on both sides will play key roles in offense and defense, helping to shape the battlefield so that the decisive force—artillery—can do its terrible work.
The possibly coming war would test Ukraine’s mainstay T-64BV and, by implication, Kiev’s approach to tank procurement.
The T-64 is a Cold War oddity. Designed by the Kharkov Tank Factory in Ukraine, the 40-ton vehicle represented a huge improvement over existing T-55 and T-62 tanks when it entered service in the mid-1960s.
The T-64 introduced a number of advancements, including a new diesel engine. It also replaces the human loader with an automatic device for ramming shells into the breech, reducing the overall crew to just three people and saving weight.
The T-64 was the first Soviet tank with the now-standard 125-millimeter smooth-bore cannon, which in upgraded T-64Bs can fire a guided missile through its tube.
The Soviets never exported the T-64, preferring to sell cheaper, simpler T-55s, T-62s and T-72s. Throughout the later decades of the Cold War, thousands of T-64s equipped Soviet armies, primed to wage apocalyptic tank war with American M-1s, German Leopards and British Challengers.
The T-64 was more than adequate to the task. “This particular tank was provided with certain capabilities that were more advanced than NATO tanks that would not appear for an additional 15 or 16 years,” U.S. Army major James Warford wrote in a 1992 thesis.
The T-80, an improved T-64 with composite armor and a gas turbine replacing the diesel engine, appeared in the mid-1970s. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Ukraine inherited hundreds of T-64s … and the factory that built the type.
Russia for its part held onto thousands of T-64s and T-80s, but their numbers steadily declined over the years. Today the Russian army has discarded most of the T-64 variants in favor of T-72 models, which are easier to build and maintain. The latest T-72 variant, the T-90, borrows some of the T-80’s best features including the composite armor, but retains the T-72’s basic automotive systems.
In short, Ukraine as an accident of history wound up with the more complex and conceptually advanced tank type, while Russia—by far a bigger and richer country—settled on the less sophisticated but more practical tank.
Kiev initially struggled to maintain and upgrade its T-64s. The government in 1999 began modernizing 1983-vintage T-64BMs. The resulting T-64BM Bulat boasts better reactive armor, a new gun and a locally made night sight.
Bulat production was slow. When Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and subsequently backed anti-government separatists in Ukraine’s Donbas region, the Ukrainian army went to war mostly with the aged, 1985-vintage T-64BVs in its inventory. Fewer than a hundred Bulats were available.
The war was hard on the Ukrainian armor corps. The army last year revealed that 440 of its tanks were destroyed or damaged in Donbas between April 2014 and June 2016. Artillery, including rockets and mortars, accounted for most of the losses.
Perhaps anticipating open warfare with the Russians, in 2017 Kiev got serious about upgrading its surviving tanks. The factory in Kharkov began producing T-64BV mod 2017s with improved night sights, satellite navigation systems, new radios and better reactive armor. In 2019 a second factory, in Lviv, also began producing the new T-64 variant.
Today the Ukrainian armor corps possesses 410 old T-64BVs, 210 T-64BV mod 2017s, 100 T-64BM Bulats and around 130 T-72s. Another thousand tanks are in storage.
The upgraded T-64s are, in principle, technologically superior to most Russian tanks. But it’s useless comparing one tank to another when the two might never meet in battle.
Tanks are tools of wider combined-arms operations. Battalions maneuvering or digging in alongside infantry, all in order to position their supporting artillery for best effect. Planning, training, leadership and discipline on the battlefield each is more important then the finer points of one piece of kit or another.
In that context it’s an open question how well Kiev’s T-64s might perform in a broader operation while their crews are under tremendous stress—and, by extension, how they might fare in all-out war with the much larger Russian army with its own, arguably less sophisticated but much more numerous tanks.
Hopefully we never find out.
I’m a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina.