by Denis Selesnev

Translated by Eugenia

The military operation in Donbass resulted for the Ukrainian army in huge losses of weapons – first of all, tanks. It has been estimated that during hostilities of 2014 the Military Forces of Ukraine (MFU) lost up to 200 tanks destroyed or taken by the adversary. The resumption of the active hostilities naturally leads to new losses. From the beginning of 2015 through the mid-February 50 tanks were destroyed, at least 40 taken, and a number damaged and had to be removed for repairs. Therefore, in a month or so of fighting Kiev lost more than 100 tanks, or at least 300 from the beginning of the military campaign. The age factor is also worth noting – most tanks in the army of Ukraine were produced about 30 years ago. This further increases the rate of breakups and malfunctions.

Can no longer do it by themselves

Theoretically, MFU could still make up for losses, since in addition to 600 T-64 that the army had at the beginning of hostilities (although not all of them were operational), warehouses stored additional 600 T-64, 600 T-72, and 150 T-80. However, there were serious problems with the introductions of these machines into the active army. First, back in summer at least 300 of stored T-72 were deemed unsuitable for repairs. In reality, many of these units are now just carcasses of tanks after having been dismantled to fulfill export contracts. Total up to 800 tanks of this type were sold during the period of independence, while remaining served as the source of spare parts. Although T-64 was not exported (with the exception of a few tanks sold in the fall of 2014), unsuitable storage conditions led to failure of many units and external equipment.

The President and Minister of Defense of Ukraine solemnly presented modernized and reconditioned weapons to representative of military units. Judging by the photos of these events, total of about a hundred of repaired and refurbished tanks were transferred. At least a third of them are tanks intended for export to Congo and Nigeria and produced in the prewar time. It is also worth noting that the transfer of 31 tanks (a battalion) refurbished in the tank repairing facility in Lvov ended up in a scandal. After the ceremonious presentation by the President, the commander of the tank battalion of the 14th tank brigade refused to accept the machines because of their unsatisfactory technical condition. Soon after all of them were returned to the facility for additional repairs.

Interestingly, according to the general director of the Malishev factory who was present at one of those ceremonious transfers, his plant managed to repair up to 20 damaged in battle tanks “Bulat” – Ukrainian modification of T-64 – in three months. Considering that the Lvov facility and Malishev factory are the best-preserved enterprises of the kind, the whole Ukrainian industry is hardly capable of providing more than one tank battalion a month. This means that it would need to work for 3-4 months to make up for losses incurred in one month.

As to the supplies of new rather than refurbished machines, here the prospects are even less optimistic. The only factory in Ukraine capable of producing new tanks is the Malishev factory in Kharkov. According to its general director Nikolai Belov, the current production cycle for a tank is 9 months. It is unclear how many tanks the factory can produce simultaneously. Based on the most optimistic assessment of “Ukroboronprom” (the Ukrainian state-owned corporation of military enterprises), in 2015 the Ukrainian tank industry will be able to produce up to 40 new tanks. This number doesn’t look so small, particularly taking into account that in the last two years the factory produced no more than 10 new machines. But it will still be necessary to find reliable suppliers to replace some Russian-produced components, if the production is to reach even these numbers, modest as they are in comparison with the demands of the front.

At the beginning of February, the government approved the state military contract for 2015. And although the document is considered top secret, several politicians have already criticized it, thereby partially revealing is content. From their statements, in particular, it is clear that the main emphasis is on the production and repair of tanks, and that considerable funds will be spend for this purpose. It is important to bear in mind, though, that, eager to secure financing, many Ukrainian enterprises apparently considerably overstate their capabilities. The problem seems so serious that the head of the Council of the National Security and Defense Turchonov suggested punishment for the failure to fulfill the state defense contracts. According to him, the failures to carry out work according to contracts have become widespread in the industry. This looks logical considering that the Ukrainian industry suffers from the deficit of not only production capacity but also of workers. The hope to find several thousand qualified workers for the monthly salary of $80-100 today appears like heavy irony.

Bearing in mind everything said above, if the fighting is resumed the tank units in the Kiev army will either be shrinking at the accelerating rate or will require import of ready to go tanks. If such import does not come, two or three more battles at the scale of Debaltsevo cauldron – and MFU will be facing serious shortages in tank units.

Will abroad help?

Obviously, for a quick fix, MFU will have to import tanks exclusively of the Soviet origin. Taking into accounts the specifics of the Soviet export and the current international situation, only tanks T-72 available in the Eastern Europe fit the bill. Totally, about 800 tanks of this type are today in the armies of Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and some other republics of the former Yugoslavia; 500 of them in the army of Poland. Additional 600 tanks are stored in warehouses in these countries. Naturally, these tanks are all in different technical conditions, which even the local Ministries of Defense, the same as in Ukraine, will not be able to assess. Nevertheless, MFU theoretically could count on several hundreds of tanks from these countries. However, such plans at this point meet with multiple difficulties.

First, it is important to note that Ukraine has a serious competitor looking to buy tanks T-72 in Europe – Iraq. The military of that country suffers serious losses in heavy weapons in the fighting with Islamic groups. Out of 150 tanks “Adams” supplied by the US, the Iraqi tank units lost close to a half. They also lose tanks of the Soviet origin at a similar rate. Back in 2009, the Iraq Ministry of Defense announced the intent to buy up to 2,000 T-72 machines. In reality, later only Hungary supplied 77 tanks from its storage, and they were modernized in American facilities. Additionally, Bulgaria supplied armored machines, not tanks, but universal trucks MT-LB from old stocks.

With the start of hostilities in Iraq in summer of 2014, the question again arose regarding the export of weapons from Europe. In July, the leaders of the EU officially recognized the need to support Iraq with weapons. The first countries announcing the delivery of tanks were Hungary and Czech Republic. In summer, a well-publicized group of 58 Hungarian T-72 tanks that was supposed to be delivered to Ukraine were in reality sent instead to Czech Republic for refurbishing. And today the effort of Czech repairmen is concentrated on fulfilling contracts with Iraq and Nigeria. In January, Ukrainian airplane “Mria” delivered to Africa 16 tanks for the Nigerian military. Several media sources interpreted this event as the beginning of arming of Ukraine by Eastern European countries. Interestingly, according to the statement of the Czech firm “Escalibur” that is engaged in the export of refurbished tanks, the contract with Iraq on the export of more than a hundred of units of tanks will fill the production capacity of the enterprise for two years. So, Ukraine will have to wait for a long time to obtain tanks from Czech Republic. The second supplier for these contracts – Hungary – today has only several dozens of these machines left that require repair and reconditioning and will not help Kiev in any way.

Poland, naturally, appears to be the most realistic option as a supplier. In Soviet times, that country used to produce T-72 by license and possesses to this day the most extensive tank arsenal in Eastern Europe. In addition to 530 T-72 in use by the Polish Army, 200-300 units are in storage. So far nothing is known about the plans to supply heavy weapons from Poland to Iraq, so it could be expected that Polish tank reserves would be available to help MFU. However, there are objective difficulties here as well.

First, the Polish tank industry itself is not in the best shape. After signing in 2003 the contract with Malaysia to deliver 48 tanks RT-91 (an improved version of Polish T-72), the Poles were 2 years late in fulfilling it because of the production problems. Things hardly improved since then. So, the program of modernization of 40 tanks for the Polish army itself in 2011-2013 dragged for three years. Of course, refurbishing tanks after storage and modernization are not at all the same things. Nevertheless, it would not do to count on the great capacity of the Polish industry – it will also not be able to catch up with the MFU losses.

It would similarly be unwise to write off the position of Polish officials. It has been said multiple times in the Ministry of Defense of the republic that Poland would arm Ukraine only if there is the collective decision of NATO and the EU. The Poles have no intentions of getting embroiled on their own in the conflict with Russia because of Ukraine. No less important condition is the full payment for the weapons by the Ukrainian side – the neighbors do not intend to give out free gifts to Kiev. The words of the Minister of Defense Tomas Semonyak that Poland is ready to sell tanks RT-1 to Ukraine any time sounded like sarcasm. The truth is that this stealth technology-based machine currently exists as a single experimental unit, and its production could even hypothetically start no earlier than 2018. However, Ukrainian media did not understand sarcasm and in fall of last year spread the victorious news that Poland was about to start supplying Ukraine with invisible tanks.

Bulgaria could be another source of tanks, since that country might have in storage as many as 150 tanks. However, Bulgaria also sees more attractive prospects in the Iraq market. In an attempt to secure contracts from Iraq, Bulgarian officials even openly bribed Iraq giving away 18 howitzers D-20 from the army storage as well as several thousand units of small arms. This was done, undoubtedly, in the hope of a larger weapon contract.

Furthermore, Bulgaria does not have adequately developed industry, and the condition of tanks even in the army units is far from ideal. The parliamentary report published in the fall of 2014 stated that only 20% of Bulgarian tanks T-72 have required spare parts, and 80% of tank batteries have served their resource and are exceedingly unreliable. Therefore, their own stores of T72 tanks are becoming for the Bulgarian army today nothing more that the source of spare parts for those 80 tanks of that model that are still in the active army units.

As to the facilities capable of repairing tanks, during the years after the breakup of the Warsaw Pact the country lost the potential of its industrial-military complex to a large degree. Factories possess neither qualified personnel in sufficient number, nor equipment to be able to produce enough tanks required by the scale of the Ukrainian front. For example, during 2013 and 2014 many meetings took place in the “TEREM-Khan Krum” plant, which is the main tank repairing facility in the country, demanding to pay back wage arrears. The plant has been on the verge of bankruptcy for many years as well as in the epicenter of corruption scandals.

Romanian enterprises, by the way, are in a similar position. That country has no stores of T-72, and the military is armed with totally outdated T-55, but Romania is hardly in a position even to help with the repairs of tanks from other countries. During the last 25 years, the Romanian military industry has been constantly “reformed”, or, more precisely, simply disintegrated. By 2014, many enterprises were on the verge of bankruptcy. Only in May of 2014, the government forgiving the military industry $200 million debt started to reanimate the remaining facilities. Romania perceived the conflict in Ukraine as a threat to its own security, particularly bearing in mind the possibility of thawing the conflict in Transnistria. Possessing the most outdated army in Eastern Europe, the Romanians are today facing the necessity to quickly modernize their military. Naturally, the Ukrainian problems appear to them secondary.

As far as the countries of the former Yugoslavia are concerned, Serbia is the only country with reasonable resources, but Serbia, for obvious reasons, will not be helping Kiev against Russia. Slovakia, which has in storage at least a hundred of T-72 as well as leftovers of the military industry from the Soviet times, holds a similar position and spoke out many times against arming Ukraine.

Therefore, it could be noted that there is a theoretical possibility of obtaining tanks in Eastern Europe. The best option for Ukraine would be direct transfer of battle-ready tanks from the army units. If we ignore the political aspect of the situation, such action would be, of course, unacceptable for the Eastern European military. In spite of the increased tension in Europe, military budgets in most of these countries not only are not increasing but keep declining remaining, at best, at the level of last year. Therefore, Eastern Europe simply cannot afford to give away their army weapons. Even if a theoretical possibility to replace tanks supplied to Ukraine by the eastern allies by tanks from the US and Germany exists, there is simply not enough machines to match the Ukrainian demands. The countries bordering Ukraine are not satisfied with the size of their own military forces, and all are now asking for reinforcement with the contingents from the US and Western Europe.

Speaking about a more realistic possibility, i.e. repairs and supplying weapons from storage, this could be successful provided there was a unified political will in Europe and mobilization of industrial capabilities in Eastern Europe as well as in Western countries. For the supplies of tanks to Ukraine to play a significant role, they must become an all-European business. It is not realistic to make secrete deliveries due to time required to make the machines ready and also because of the tanks’ foreign origin, which would be immediately discovered when they appear in the front. This would, in its turn, mean further aggravation of the political crisis in Europe. So far, there is no united will in the West when in come to arming Ukraine. The leader of the EU – Germany – is against supplying Ukraine with weapons. At least, for now. Such countries, as Czech Republic and Slovakia that theoretically could become the centers of tank preparations for Ukraine, are also dead set against such deliveries. The Czech Republic stopped selling even capsules for pistol cartridges to Ukraine. Poland, although maintaining a position loyal to Maidan, has neither desire nor resources to get embroiled in the conflict on its own. It also demands full payment for its weapons. Moreover, Poland, like nobody else, overprices its weapons – at some point, it sold to Malaysia pretty outdated PT-91 for $5.5 million apiece.

Thus, it could be concluded that at this time the only more or less realistic option for Kiev is to establish the supply line of spare parts and components of tanks from the Eastern European countries. However, such supplies on the large scale appear unlikely, unless the West makes a collective decision to help The possibility of such deliveries should not be altogether excluded – Kiev will, most likely, make a determined effort to make them happen. Kiev will be most interested in tank engines that at this moment are the most problematic component for the Ukrainian tank manufacturers. Nevertheless, by all indications, Ukraine will have to solve the tank problem by itself, at least, for the forthcoming months. This means that if the hostilities resume the tank component of the MFU will definitely do down at a significant rate.

The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world