Ukraine relies on Soviet-era tanks awaiting reinforcements from the West

(CNN) — Entrenched amidst the rolling hills west of Bakhmut, tanks from the Ukrainian Army’s 28th Mechanized Brigade are helping to hold the line against a mounting Russian offensive.

They are battered and bruised from almost a year of combat, but despite their age they are appreciated by their crews.

The young tank commander, who wears the call sign David, sees his unit’s role as crucial in holding the line and preventing a Russian advance towards the lagging industrial town of Konstantinyvka.

David, a young tank commander with the Ukrainian Army’s 28th Mechanized Brigade, sees his unit as playing a crucial role in holding the line against advancing Russian forces at Bakhmut. (Mathhias Somm/CNN)

“We just work against them. If we don’t, they will come closer and we will lose our homes and families. We are here to allow people to live peacefully in their homes. If the Russians come to Konstantinyvka, what will happen? They will destroy it, leaving no stone standing.”

The 28th has already had a long war. She was in the south helping to liberate Kherson before being sent across the country. But it prides itself on having one of the lowest loss rates among Ukrainian brigades.

As David speaks, the air is cracked by the sound of outgoing tank and artillery fire. A shell is in action on the other side of the hill. Their targets are positions held by the Russian Wagner mercenary group south of Bakhmut, several kilometers away.

But the 28th uses its 125mm shells sparingly. “We have problems with ammunition, we are running out of it,” says David. “But that’s the only problem we have. We get enough spare parts, our commanders work all the time to maintain and repair the tanks.”

Sometimes all it takes is the appearance of a tank in forward positions to disperse Wagner’s fighters, who are mostly part of a lightly armed infantry.

What do the Russians think about the supply of tanks to Ukraine? 3:28

“When we come and shoot, the enemy is silent for two or three days,” says David. “They won’t shoot our guys in the trenches. If our tanks and artillery don’t fire, our infantry will suffer.”

A recent video geolocated by CNN south of Bakhmut showed two Ukrainian tanks advancing towards Wagner’s positions, at the same time that the Russian positions were attacked by Ukrainian drones from the air.

But the waves keep coming. Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the armed forces in the east, said on Friday: “The Russians are trying to break through our defenses, ignoring their own huge losses. It used to be a barrage of fire, now it’s a barrage of personnel.

“Their key weapon now is labor. In Bakhmut, it’s PMC Wagner, but not exclusively…in Vuhledar, the key assault forces are marine and infantry units, along with conscripts.”

Vuhledar, another Donetsk town, has also come under heavy attack in recent days.

Russia calls in reinforcements

Like all Ukrainian units, the 28th is sensitive to any filming that might reveal their locations. Minutes after they asked us not to film anything that could be geolocated, a drone flies over the place.

The men squint skyward but soon relax: it’s not Russian. In fact, says David, “it’s easy for a tank crew to work here. It is difficult for the enemy artillery to find our tanks or other vehicles. They do not have enough forces to locate and attack our vehicles.”

Still, tanks move frequently. “We can easily move into position, shoot and come back.”

That advantage may be lost when the Russians bring in reinforcements, including howitzers and multiple launch rocket systems. These will be critical days and weeks to defend the roughly 40% of the Donetsk region that is still in Ukrainian hands.

While the Ukrainians are familiar with Soviet-era tank operation, British Leopard 2s, Abrams and Challengers, to be provided by the West in the spring, will bring increased firepower. (Mathhias Somm/CNN)

The question is whether Ukrainian forces can hold their current positions, before being reinforced by the arrival of dozens of Western tanks, which could take up to two months.

When asked if CNN would film a “trophy tank” the 28th seized from the Russians, his team laughs and says, “In exchange for an Abrams.”

Western battle tanks promised in the last week are eagerly awaited. They would bring increased firepower and survivability at a time when tank warfare has become a major part of the conflict.

Bretton Gordon’s Hamish, a former commanding officer of the British Army’s 1st Royal Tank Regiment, says the Challengers sent by the UK are far superior to anything the Russians have.

“They can shoot accurately on the move and at night on uneven terrain. They can carry more rounds (50+) for 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, whereas one hit [de un 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 nearly 500 kilometers in a day without needing to recharge.

Ukrainian officials have told CNN they want between 400 and 600 Western tanks to help turn the tide of the war.

De Bretton Gordon says that 300 tanks would equal one division “and would allow the Ukraine to make devastating and far-reaching attacks to dislocate the Russian statics. Also, they would be supported by the 1,000 or so (Russian tanks) Ukraine already has.”

Will tanks sent to Ukraine make a difference in the war? 3:09

Ideal terrain for tanks

Much of southern and eastern Ukraine is ideal terrain for combinations of modern Western tanks and armored fighting vehicles to lead a counteroffensive.

Western tanks would also help deal with the kind of threat posed by waves of Wagner fighters. British Leopard 2s, Abrams and Challengers carry heavy machine guns, which would devastate infantry in open ground.

The Leopard 2 has another advantage, given the incredible speed at which ammunition is used in the Ukraine. Ammunition for its 120mm 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 just comes down, conceptually, to a balance between firepower, mobility and protection.” In every category, Western tanks outperform their Russian counterparts.

The only advantage Ukrainians have in operating Soviet-era tanks is familiarity.

“It depends on the crew, not the tank,” says David, leaning against his T-64. “An experienced team can deal with any situation. Among all the tanks, T-72, T-80, T-90, this is my favorite. Everyone can take the place of another crew member. The mechanic can be a commander if I’m hurt.”

When will tanks from the West arrive in Ukraine? 0:36

He adds that the crew can maintain the T-64 for themselves. “If the weapon breaks down during a combat mission, we have enough experience to fix it.”

Those combat missions are likely to come hard and fast in the coming weeks, before Western tanks start arriving en masse in the spring.

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