Putin’s shattered army will never recover

Russia’s absurd decision to send ancient tanks to the front line reeks of desperation and delusion

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon

23 March 2023 •

It was the 19th-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz who described war as “the realm of uncertainty”. In Ukraine, the fog of war is thick, and growing ever thicker. It’s impossible to gauge the true state of the battles raging in the east of the country. For some, Ukraine’s heroic defence against the renewed Russian offensive marks a victory of sorts. For others, the high losses they are sustaining are indicative of Russia’s ability to remobilise and regroup.

But if the latest information coming out of Russia is to be believed, Putin and his generals are in a worse state than many realise. In a bizarre twist, the Russian army appears to be morphing into the Red Army of yesteryear, with trains spotted carrying 1950s T55 tanks to the front line, hurriedly lifted out of storage.

It is the latest sign of a serious, perhaps fatal, armour shortage among Putin’s forces. As a former tank commander, I cannot overstate the insanity of sending such outdated heavy weaponry to the front – the Russians must be truly desperate. Either that or they have lost the plot.

In the 21st century, these old tanks are little more than steel coffins. A modern rifle could pierce their armour; a drone or modern Western tank could do far worse. To a “tankie” like me, it’s the equivalent of a First World War biplane taking on a new stealth fighter. If I was a Russian tank commander – God forbid – and my commanding officer told me to fight in one of these museum pieces, I would stand to attention, turn to the right, salute, and march home.

The problem is that the Russian generals still believe their own propaganda. They believe in the myth of the indestructible Soviet tank rolling across Europe. Before the invasion, Russia’s minister of defence, Sergei Shoigu, invested heavily in a fleet of modern tanks when he reformed the armed forces. Their effectiveness was impeded by corruption, however, and then they were largely destroyed in the initial invasion last year. Once they were gone, they were gone for good and impossible to replace. I said at the time it was hard to see how the Russians could ever truly recover; so it has proved. And far from giving the Russians any chance of victory, these relics will only hasten their defeat.

Critics of my view will argue that it’s quantity not quality that matters; that even these relics in large numbers are a daunting prospect on the battlefield. Nonsense. One need only study the Battle of Kursk in 1943 – the largest tank battle in history – to see the folly of sending large numbers of old tanks against superior models and advanced anti-tank weaponry. The Russians lost many hundreds of T34s in that hideous battle, yet 80 years later they want to use outdated tanks against even more modern technology. It’s lunacy.

When Britain’s Challenger 2s arrive in Ukraine, they will pick off T55s as though in a fairground shooting gallery. And even if these Soviet tanks managed to hit a Challenger 2, it’s likely the crew wouldn’t even notice. A British tank round would probably go through two or three of them before it ran out of energy. It now makes complete sense why the Russians are trying to frame the rounds we are donating as biohazards (made as they are with harmless depleted uranium). They know they will decimate their “new” tank battalions, which will not be able to land a punch back.

At this vital moment, as certain Western countries equivocate about their continued support of Ukraine, it is important we don’t buy into Putin’s propaganda that Russia is remobilising so many men, munitions and materiel that it will be ultimately unstoppable. It is simply not true. The core of the Russian army is broken and unrecoverable. Its advanced tanks are wrecks and its men exhausted, unable to advance more than a few miles a week in this new push.

In short: it will take years for Russia to rebuild – time it does not have as the new wave of Western weapons begins to arrive. If tanks designed many, many decades ago are what Russia is resorting to, we should station guards at the Tank Museum in Dorset in case the Russians try to steal them. They would be better use than the ones Putin is now bringing out of storage to relieve his beleaguered forces.

Col Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a former commander of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a regular contributor to the Telegraph’s ‘Ukraine: The Latest‘ podcast. With over 24 million downloads, it is your go-to source for live reaction and correspondents reporting on the ground. You can listen here.


  1. Selected comments from DT readers:

    Anthony Thompson:
    “In the late 1970s I was head purchasing for an engineering company. We bought large quantities of ball bearings. We could have saved a fortune by buying Eastern European but the quality was so low, it wasn’t worth it. The Technical Director made the observation that NATO should not fear the Soviet Union because a tank is composed of hundreds of ball bearings and, given how bad theirs were, any attack would literally break down within a few hours. Those tanks and their ball bearings will not have been kept well in storage and when they are put into service now in Eastern Ukraine, they will soon be scrap metal whether they’ve been hit or not. I think the Russian army is on the brink of sudden collapse.”

    Kevin Baverstock:
    “Col. Hamish is right ( and of course I defer to his experience ) about the relative superiority of the Challenger 2 over the T55, however that’s assuming that there will only be tank-on-tank duels. In reality if these tanks will be used as mobile guns / machine gun carriers in front of advancing infantry, It will force the Ukrainians to use ATGMs to stop them (which cost more than the value of the tank and are increasingly low supply) . Even a 60 year old tank is useful during mass infantry attacks/tactics of the type the Russians are carrying out. This is a war of attrition. Numbers matter.”

    Reply from Ambrose Ceschin:
    “Whilst modern tanks on the vflanks and drones pick them off. Or you think the Ukrainians will not be prepared?”

    Martin Mitchell:
    “The permanently tiddled Medvedev claims the orcs are going to produce 1,500 T-90Ms a year. Well, that is 29 a week, less than half what the Ukrainians are destroying now and in any case is a number born of fantasy.
    Medvedev: “The T-90M Breakthrough is our newest tank. In my opinion the best tank in the world. It is certainly better than the Leopard, the Challenger, the Abrams, including & according to their performance characteristics.”
    The T-90 tank is a deep modernization of the T-72B, which at the time of its production was outdated and lagging behind Western models. The T-72 was more backward than not only Western tanks, but also the Soviet T-80BV and T-64BV!
    The designers of the T-90 were faced with the task of installing a ready-made weapon control system, the 1A45-T into the architecture of the T-72B. They coped with this task, as expected, through the derriere, resulting in a decrease in ergonomics and space for the crew.
    They managed to do the same with the armor of the T-90, which, due to the flawed installation of the electro-optical jammer, received a vulnerable projection of the tower in the most accessible area for a hit.
    In the modification of the T-90A, they tried to reduce the number of weak zones on the welded turret, but it was the T-90M “Breakthrough” that returned all the vulnerabilities to their place and even more – increased the risks in the projectile load zone. That is why, the RF’s “most protected tank” burns with a bang.
    With Boris Yeltsin, the delivery of these defective tanks to the Russian army began, and with the bluster of Medvedev, the process of the disappearance of T-90 tanks from The forces of the RF, burning non-stop in Ukraine, is taking place. https://t.me/zloyodessit/18664

    Fred Bloggs:
    “Not for the first time Hamish Brown completely misses the point , it doesn’t matter how old the tank is it still has to be destroyed on the battle field that takes ammunition and man power both of which are in short supply. Older tanks are loss leaders they use up your enemy’s supplies and reveal your enemy’s positions its an effective tactic for the Russian army.”

    Mark Jones:
    “British Challenger tanks or indeed Leopards will indeed cut thru Russia’s armoured reserves. Yet even more damage will be done by the cannons of Marders and Bradleys on Russia’ vintage Zippo tanks.
    The biggest Russian armoured problem however in tank country Kherson and eventually Crimea will be logistics.
    Fuel, ammo and food for Russian crews needs to be delivered just in time. Lacking even one of the three, those Russian tank crews who still live will be walking back home to 2013 borders over the Kerch bridge.”

  2. One important aspect that’s often overlooked is the crew component. If we take the rest of the mafia army as a precedent, as far as training is concerned, then I seriously doubt we’ll see well-trained ruskie tank crews. Lacking proper training, the best tank is not worth as much as on paper. Add to this an ancient design, like the T-54/55, in which the optics are old and lacking a fire control system, you only have an armored artillery piece that has limited use. Never mind what will happen when that old tank and badly-trained crew meet up with modern Western tanks, manned by well-trained and highly-motivated Ukrainian crews … or a TWO/Javelin/NLAW/Stugna-P.

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