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Captured Ukraine Documents Show Russia Lost 131 Tanks Failing to Capture Kharkiv

Russian T-90M tank. Image Credit: Twitter.

Another victory for Ukraine? After a three-month siege, in mid-May Ukrainian troops finally drove away the last Russian forces surrounding Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second most populous city.

Since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the metropolis of 1.4 million has been under relentless bombardment, costing the lives over 600 civilians by mid-May. With Russian forces driven back, in some cases all the way to the Ukrainian border with Russia, most Russian artillery (save for the heaviest guns and rockets) have been pushed out of range, giving Kharkiv’s resilient citizens respite from unrelenting, indiscriminate attacks.

Concurrently, Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate just published what is apparently a captured Russian log recording armored vehicle losses suffered by the 1st Guards Tank Army in the first three weeks of the war.

This elite unit spearheaded the assault on the Kharkiv region, but was withdrawn in April, its commander dismissed after weeks of fruitless attacks.

If the documents are genuine—and they don’t seem like some elaborate deception, given the believable claims—they imply its sub-units lost between one-quarter and one-half of their tanks in three weeks of fighting around Kharkiv.

Russia’s only tank army

The 1st Guards Tank Army (1st GTA) is the only tank army in the Russian order of battle. Ordinarily based in Moscow, it counts three powerful divisions and one brigade with more modern armored vehicles and equipment than the rest of the Russian Army. It also has a higher ratio of longer-term, paid contract soldiers instead of conscripts.

  • 2nd ‘Tamanskaya’ Guards Motor Rifle Division
    • 2x motor-rifle regiments        [1st, 15th]        BMP-2, BTR-80
    • 1x tank regiment                    [1st]                 T-72B3M
  • 4th Guards Tank Division
    • 2x tank regiments                   [12th, 13th]     BMP-2 T-80U and T-80UE tanks
    • 1x motor-rifle regiment         [423rd]                        BMP-2, T-80BV and T-80BVM tanks
  • 47th Guards Tank Division
    • 1x tank regiment                    [26th]
  • 27th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade
  • 3x infantry battalions BMP-3, BTR-82A, BTR-80
  • 1x tank battalion T-90A tanks

Each Russian tank regiment has around 93 tanks in three battalions, and one battalion of mechanized infantry mounted in BMP infantry fighting vehicles or IFVs (with usually around 42-48 vehicles). A motor-rifle regiment has the inverse: three battalions of mechanized infantry in BTR armored personnel carriers or BMP vehicles, and one tank battalion.

The tank army’s four units between them mustered around 16 tank battalions and 16 mechanized infantry battalions; a high ratio of tanks even by Russian standards.

In the field, these battalions were likely used to generate about two-thirds that number of adhoc battalion-tactical groups heavily reinforced by artillery batteries and other support units.

The army also includes a brigade each dedicated to artillery (mobile BM-27 rocket and 2S19 howitzer systems), Iskander ballistic missiles, Buk medium-range air defense missiles, reconnaissance, and command-and-control.

Counting the Casualties in Ukraine

In terms of casualties, the log suggests the 1st GTA reportedly lost 409 personnel:

  • 61 killed in action
  • 44 missing in action
  • 209 wounded in action
  • 96 captured/surrendered

Though the high number of surrendered troops for an invading army is notable, this remains a percentage loss rate in the low single-digits for a Russian army-sized formation.

However, the document further reports the loss of 308 vehicles. Rob Lee, an expert on the Russian military, highlights some major implication of the loss reports.

  • 1st Guards Tank Regiment (part of the 2nd Motor-Rifle Division) lost 45 out of its 93 upgraded T-72B3M tanks—i.e. nearly 50 percent of its combat strength.
  • The 4th Tank Division’s three maneuver regiments lost 65 T-80U and T-80UE tanks, and six T-72BVs. That’s around 33 percent of its expected strength of 200-217 tanks.
  • The 27th Motor-Rifle brigade lost nine of its 31 T-90A tanks (29 percent)
  • Infantry fighting vehicles losses are also startling with the loss of battalion equivalent each of BMP-2 fighting vehicles and BTR-80 APC wheeled APCs across three motor-rifle regiments

In all the documents, Lee counts the loss of 131 tanks, materially equivalent to more than four entire battalions of tanks out of the roughly 16 in the tank army’s order of battle. He also notes the losses seem to correspond with detailed confirmed loss records maintained by the Oryx blog.

The T-80s and T-90As are amongst Russia’s best operational tanks, protected by various types of explosive reactive armor and ‘soft-kill’ active protection systems to misdirect incoming missiles. The T-80s are also faster, thanks to gas-turbine engines, while the T-90s sport distinctive anti-laser guidance jammers and French thermal sights. The T-72B3M, meanwhile, is a relatively extensive modernization of the less expensive T-72, incorporating many similar systems.

Still, they share the vulnerability of having their 125-millimeter shells stored in an automatic loading system in the turret amidst the crew. This creates a high risk of catastrophic detonation if the armor is penetrated (often resulting in the turret blasting clean off the tank) and poor odds of crew survival.

Ukraine’s second city takes on a Russian tank army

In truth, the heavy losses likely have less to do with the tanks’ technical shortcomings than Russian tactical and operational incompetence as well as Ukrainian perseverance, as explained below.

Columns of armored vehicles from Russia’s elite Moscow-based 1st Guards Tank Army streamed into and around the big city from their staging area in the nearby Russian city of Belgorod.

However as poor and uncoordinated jabs into Kharkiv’s suburbs were crushed, the mechanized units instead streamed around the city’s flanks, besieging the cities of Sumy, Okhtyrka and Trostyanets to Kharkiv’s west (supported by the smaller 6th Combined Arms Army), or Chuhuiv to the southeast. The aim was to open an additional eastern corridor to Kyiv and encircle Kharkiv, as Russian forces had done in Mariupol far to the south.

But Russian forces proved incapable of capturing these secondary cities, lacking sufficient infantry to secure dense urban areas and properly screen tanks from ambushes. This allowed outgunned Ukrainian defenders to stubbornly hold on by their fingernails, lasting through weeks of desperate fighting.

Meanwhile, the supply lines of Russian spearhead units pushing into central-eastern Ukraine grew longer and sustained heavy losses from Ukrainian raids. And Ukrainian forces based around Kharkiv, including the 92nd and 93rd mechanized brigades, began a series of fast-paced counterattacks that routed multiple Russian regiments, slashing back constricting coils of the attempted encirclement.

By the end of March, Russian forces had lost Chuhuiv and their hold on the western cities was growing weaker, not stronger. As the Russian military grudgingly retreated from the approaches to Kyiv, it also relinquished the cities west of Kharkiv. Most of the 1st Guards Tank Army fell back into Russia in the hopes its exhausted forces could be more profitably redeployed for a new campaign targeting the Donbas region.

However, a Russian covering force remained around Kharkiv itself, manned by lower-quality Russian separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, apparently as well as the 1st GTA’s 200th and 27th Motor Rifle Brigades, detached from Russia’s 6th army and 1st GTA respectively.

This residual presence was to pin down Ukrainian defenses around Kharkiv – denying their use in Donbas – and to sustain the bombardment, more than out of any short-term expectation of capturing the metropolis.

However, Ukraine’s military was aware of the weakness of the Russian covering force. In May it mobilized three mechanized brigades around Kharkiv (the 72nd, 92nd and 93rd) to launch a series of counterstrikes, pushing Russian forces northward back towards the border, or eastward against the unyielding banks of the Siverskyi Donets river.

The counteroffensive also opened a corridor down the M-03 highway from Ukraine to Izium, the locust-like swarm of Russian efforts to punch through Ukrainian lines in Donbas. In fact, the elements of the 1st Guards Tank Army, including its 2nd Tank Division, are among the forces operating around the city. The elite tank army may be done fighting Kharkiv, but Kharkiv, it seems, isn’t done fighting it.

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National InterestNBC, War is Boring, and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor.  He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News,, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.