Russia’s unsustainable equipment losses in Ukraine

You could pick almost any military in the world — including the U.K., France and Germany — and these losses would exceed their total inventories.

According to the open-source database Oryx, Russia has lost 1,183 tanks and 1,304 infantry fighting vehicles since its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Even more extraordinary is that Ukraine has captured a good percentage of them: 389 tanks and 415 infantry fighting vehicles, many of which, in both categories, have already been repurposed for combat against their former owners. These numbers are just the Russian losses that have been visually confirmed; the actual figures are probably much higher.

Ukraine has lost equipment, too, but not nearly as much, owing to its relative lack of hardware, careful protection of what it does possess, and the defensive nature of its war thus far: 1,627 pieces, including 267 tanks and 244 infantry fighting vehicles, as per Oryx.

A Ukrainian national guard serviceman stands atop a destroyed Russian tank in an area near the border with Russia, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. This region of rolling fields and woodland near the Russian border was the site of fierce battles for months during the summer. Only now, after Ukrainian forces retook the area and pushed Russian troops back across the border in a blistering counteroffensive, has the collection of bodies that lie scattered across the battlefield been possible. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
A Ukrainian national guard serviceman stands atop a destroyed Russian tank in the Kharkiv region. (AP/Leo Correa)

On the face of it, Russian losses are unsustainable. But even more extraordinary is that its “elite” units are hemorrhaging the most materiel. After Ukraine’s Kharkiv counteroffensive, in which Kyiv is estimated to have retaken as many as 3,500 square miles, the 4th Guards Tank Division lost nearly 100 of its T-80U tanks. (The 4th Guards Tank Division is the only unit that operates this model.)

Russia is losing proportionally more of its more modern than its older tank models. For example, the T-72B3 — dating from 2010 — and T-72B3 Obr. 2016 — dating from 2016 — are two of the most common tanks lost.

We also know that Russia’s losses are burning through its reserve vehicles. Very old T-62M tanks have been increasingly appearing, as Russia runs out of newer, more capable tanks. Using these tanks will also exacerbate the Kremlin’s manpower shortages: The T-62 does not feature an autoloader, which automatically loads shells into the main gun, unlike more modern Russian types, so it needs a four-man crew, compared to the three-man crews required by T-72, T-80, or T-90 models.

Ukrainian servicemen work on a tank on September 20, 2022, abandoned by Russian troops during their retreat in the north of the Kharkiv region. (Photo by SERGEY BOBOK / AFP) (Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images)
Ukrainian servicemen work on a tank abandoned by Russian troops during their retreat. (Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images)

Significantly, the Ukrainians have captured more tanks than they have lost, according to visually confirmed data from Oryx.

Since Ukraine is a former Soviet bloc state, its soldiers also have the advantage of familiarity with the operation of used Russian tanks, meaning that Ukrainian crews can often just repaint them and start using them immediately.

Of course, some captured Russian vehicles are easier to repurpose than others; some tanks are abandoned in near-perfect condition, while others are damaged beyond repair.

The Ukrainian “Independence Day” parade in Kyiv featured numerous captured Russian tanks that appeared outwardly to be in working condition but had extensive damage to their engines or internal mechanics. Many of the T-80 tanks that were captured by the Ukrainians in the early days of the war apparently simply ran out of fuel. Not only is their turbine engine extremely thirsty, but driving through the rasputitsa — the heavy mud that caked Ukraine at the start of the war — lowers fuel economy even further. Many crews had to abandon their vehicles and retreat when Russia’s straining logistics corps failed to keep them supplied.

People walk around destroyed Russian military vehicles installed in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
People walk around destroyed Russian military vehicles installed in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Even badly damaged armored vehicles, however, can be a useful source of spare parts, and Ukrainian soldiers also strip any working machine guns from such vehicles to use as infantry weapons. There have been many instances of Ukrainian soldiers taking captured Russian vehicles and upgrading them themselves; for example, adding thermal sights, extra armor and even Starlink satellite internet to captured BTR-82 armored personnel carriers, or by bolting an MT-12 anti-tank gun to the roof of a captured MT-LB armored personnel carrier, turning it into a makeshift but effective tank destroyer. They have also been taking components from destroyed Russian vehicles, such as BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, and adding them to civilian pickup trucks to create lightly armed but highly mobile rocket-launching vehicles.

Russia’s sophisticated vehicles will be difficult to replace, given Western import restrictions. The Russian T-72B3 uses a “Catherine” thermal imaging system made by the French multinational defense contractor Thales. Russia imported these systems because it does not have the capability to build them domestically and because few other sources of this sophisticated equipment are available. China — notionally Russia’s ally — has scaled back the export of microprocessors necessary for Russia’s newer missiles, almost certainly because of the fear of secondary sanctions if it is seen to be feeding Putin’s war machine.

This photograph taken on September 14, 2022 shows a destroyed Russian MT-LB armoured personnel carrier burning in a field on the outskirts of Izyum, Kharkiv Region, eastern Ukraine amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Juan BARRETO / AFP) (Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP via Getty Images)
A destroyed Russian MT-LB armored personnel carrier burning in a field on the outskirts of Izium, Ukraine. (Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images)

The Ukrainians have also captured a large number of sophisticated Russian electronic warfare systems. These will not only be of interest to Ukraine’s Western partners (especially the United States), but studying these systems may help the Ukrainians to counteract Russian electronic warfare efforts more effectively. These systems could also be turned back against their original owners once the Ukrainians have studied them. Again, most modern Russian equipment will operate in ways that are familiar to Ukrainian military officers used to operating ex-Soviet and Russian military equipment.

In the air, Russia has not fared much better, losing significant numbers of its most sophisticated and notionally most capable fixed and rotary-wing platforms. According to Oryx, at least 12 Sukhoi Su-34 strike aircraft have been destroyed. Many of these were shot down by portable anti-air systems, as Russia’s lack of precision-guided munitions has forced their aircraft to fly low and drop “dumb,” unguided bombs, bringing them into the range of these shoulder-launched, short-range, surface-to-air missiles. They’ve also lost at least 16 Ka-52 “Alligator” attack helicopters, their most sophisticated and most recent rotary-wing aircraft.