Russia Repeats Battle Tactic That Failed in Bucha, Loses Critical Tanks

  • Russia lost 130 tanks during three weeks of fighting near Vuhledar, per Ukrainian officials.
  • The country repeated prior tactical errors that previously lost them scores of critical vehicles.
  • An expert of US-Soviet relations told Insider that Russia’s newest offensive is “half-baked.”

The largest tank battle of the Russia-Ukraine war thus far proved to be yet another humbling misstep for Russia,

Ukrainian military officials this week that Russia lost at least 130 armored vehicles during the fighting outside the coal mining town of Vuhledar earlier this year, according to The New York Times. The battle saw Russia rely on an early tank tactic — one that failed the country in Bucha last year — by sending military vehicle columns straight into enemy territory where ambush awaited.

“It is striking that they’re repeating a mistake which I would have thought was an extremely painful one from which they would learn during the early days of the war,” said Simon Miles, an assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and a historian of the Soviet Union and US-Soviet relations.

Photos and video from the three-week tank battle outside Vuhledar in the Donetsk region, where Russia launched its most recent offensive in January, show armored vehicles fighting against one another and being blown to pieces.

Blunders in Bucha

As Ukraine and Russia both prepared to launch new offensives in recent months, tanks, a long-important status symbol of Russia’s military might, have become increasingly important, both symbolically and strategically. Russia tapped Cold War-era military vehicles for its offensive, according to The Times, in stark contrast to Ukraine, which is awaiting Western tanks from far-away allies that are expected to arrive on the battlefield in the coming months. 

But long before the staggering losses in Vuhledar, Russia’s tank failures were evident just weeks into the war. The country’s attacks on Bucha, a suburb of Ukraine’s capital city, failed to capture Kyiv and secure Putin a quick victory.

In what grew to be a 35-mile line of armored vehicles outside Bucha in February 2022, more than 100 Russian military vehicles descended upon the town, which was the site of mass killings and several alleged human rights atrocities over the course of a month early in the war.

The apparent convoy, which Ukrainian armed forces later said was actually 10 separate tactical battalion units belonging to Russia, according to the BBC, ultimately failed to capture Kyiv after a chaotic traffic jam forced troops to retreat. 

Tactical and military experts told the outlet that Russia’s initial plan relied on secrecy and speed, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to keep his schemes concealed would prove costly: Last-minute orders meant troops were left without adequate communication technology and ill-equipped to handle the cold weather. The long line of tanks drove straight into the sludge of Bucha, unable to move forward and forced to divert to clearer roads, where, with little communication between the battalions, a traffic jam ensued, according to the BBC.

At its peak, the column outside Bucha was 35 miles long with as many as 1,000 tanks, 2,400 mechanized infantry vehicles, and 10,000 personnel, the outlet reported. Ukraine found early success in blowing up bridges and dams in front of the convoy, according to the BBC, forcing the Russians to aimlessly reroute.

Russian troops, along with their tanks, began to withdraw in late March. Soon after, Ukraine defeated two of the biggest battalions present near Hostomel airport and another 370 tented army trucks were destroyed by artillery, the outlet reported, amounting to stunning early losses for Russia.

Soldiers walk amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha.

Soldiers walk amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha, in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, April 3, 2022.

AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd, File

Lessons not learned

The battle of Vuhledar has proven similarly unsuccessful for Russia, which once again sent in columns of tanks upon which Ukrainian troops fired at a distance, hiding out of sight of the long convoy, The Times reported this week. Just like in Bucha, Russia failed to capture its intended target in Vuhledar, making the same mistake that already cost them scores of tanks a year ago.

It’s one of the more egregious errors in what Miles called the “half-baked” Russian offensive playing out in Vuhledar and Ukraine’s east. He chalked the missteps up to Putin’s growing impatience, suggesting the Russian president fired his top general, Sergei Surovikin, in mid-January because he didn’t agree with the military leader’s plan, which would have seen Russia go on the defense while Ukraine launched its offensive, waiting for the second tranche of mobilized Russians to arrive on the battlefield, who are ostensibly better trained than their predecessors.

Instead, the Russians continue to make the very mistake Surovikin seemed to hope Ukraine might make: launching a premature offensive without the reserves to see it through. 

The Ukrainians, meanwhile, are in a better position to absorb Russia’s attacks and launch their own offensive, especially with the promise of more Western weapons on the way.

“I think Putin’s impatience is going to cost them a lot,” Miles said. “At least in terms of opportunity-cost, because the offensive is so under-prepared that they won’t be able to meaningfully exploit against, or because they will be much more susceptible to the Ukrainians’.”

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