Nine days into its 2023 counteroffensive, the Ukrainian army has lost at least four of the 85 Leopard 2 tanks its foreign allies have pledged to the war effort. And it’s apparent the Ukrainians expect to lose many more.
Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, told German network NTV that Berlin should triple—from 18 to 54—the number of Leopard 2s it’s willing to give to Kyiv. “The Ukrainian army most urgently needs many more Western battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other armored vehicles,” Melnyk said.
Since attacking along at least three axes in southern Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk Oblasts starting last Monday, Ukraine has been losing tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and specialized engineering vehicles at a rate that, while not unexpected by experts, still has startled many casual observers.
A disastrous assault across a Russian minefield south of Mala Tokmachka on Thursday was especially costly. The Ukrainian 33rd Mechanized Brigade and 47th Assault Brigade lost three of their 14 Leopard 2A6 tanks, 16 of their 109 M-2 IFVs and three of their six Leopard 2R engineering vehicles—all in the span of a few minutes, apparently.
While the durable Western vehicles seem mostly to have protected their crews and passengers from the blasts that disabled them, the write-offs nevertheless could seriously degrade the brigades’ combat power—and at a critical time. The 33rd and 47th Brigades are the lead formations along the axis stretching from Mala Tokmachka to the strategic town of Tokmak, 20 miles farther south.
If the Ukrainians can break through the trenches and earthworks around Tokmak and cross the Tokmak River, they might be able to race all the way to Melitopol, a strategic city near the Sea of Azov. Liberating Melitopol would cut the overland supply lines to Crimea, softening the peninsula in advance of a possible Ukrainian effort to eject its Russian occupiers.
But as complex as Russian defenses are outside Mala Tokmachka, they’re even more complex in Tokmak.
The 33rd and 47th Brigades lost around a fifth of their combined heavy combat vehicles trying, and apparently failing, to force their way through the Mala Tokmachka fortifications. While the brigades might be able to maneuver around the Mala Tokmachka line, the Tokmak line is wider and denser. There probably is no way around.
The 33rd and 47th Brigades might have no choice but to attempt a direct breach of the Tokmak line—and they could lose even more vehicles in that assault than they did in their failed assault outside Mala Tokmachka. Would they have enough combat power left to exploit that breach and reach Melitopol?
To be clear, the 33rd and 47th Brigades are just two of the nine brigades the Ukrainian army, marine corps and air-assault forces stood up specifically for the current counteroffensive. Kyiv has yet to deploy the bulk of its counteroffensive brigades. But they too could suffer heavy losses simply reaching the main Russian defensive line, which lies 10 or 20 miles south of the initial line of contact.
The problem, for Ukrainian planners, is that Kyiv’s foreign allies pledged just enough heavy weaponry to equip these brigades: 21 long-gun Leopard 2A6s, 54 short-gun Leopard 2A4s, 60 PT-91 tanks, 109 M-2 IFVs, 90 Stryker IFVs, 60 Marder IFVs and 40 AMX-10RC reconnaissance tanks.
Other foreign vehicles—31 M-1A1 tanks, 130 or more Leopard 1s and at least 50 CV-90 fighting vehicles—haven’t yet arrived.
The losses piled up fast. Starting nine days ago, Russian mines, artillery and anti-tank missiles disabled an army Leopard 2A4 and at least two marine corps AMX-10RCs in addition to those Leopard 2A6s and M-2s the army’s 33rd and 47th Brigades lost.
If the loss rate from the first week continues—or gets worse, as many observers expect it will—the counteroffensive force could write off a third of its best vehicles within a month of the full force joining the fight. At that point, many brigades could begin to lose combat-effectiveness—and there aren’t many, or any, vehicles in reserve to make good the losses.
Again, Western-made vehicles tend to protect their crews even while suffering damage that immobilizes them. But a trained Leopard 2 crew—even one that has survived the destruction of several tanks—isn’t worth much to the war effort once there are no more tanks for it to ride in.
The U.S. government for one appreciates the urgency of the situation. Washington reportedly will send to Kyiv a second consignment of M-2s in order to replace those vehicles the Ukrainians abandoned outside Mala Tokmachka last week.
Now Ukraine needs its European allies to step up, too. Germany has 300 active Leopard 2 tanks, diplomat Melnyk said. The 18 Leopard 2s Berlin has pledged to Kyiv could be “tripled without endangering Germany’s ability to defend itself,” according to Melnyk.
The German government might disagree. A recent audit found that, following decades of under-investment, just 130 of the German army’s 300 Leopard 2s were operational.
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