November 2, 2022 | Insight

How to get Kyiv the Tanks and Armored Vehicles It Needs

November 2, 2022 | Insight

How to get Kyiv the Tanks and Armored Vehicles It Needs

“We’re fighting the war out of our pickup trucks,” stated a Ukrainian soldier when reflecting on Ukraine’s slowing counteroffensive in Luhansk region. While Ukraine has a large inventory of tanks and armored vehicles, Kyiv needs more to avoid unnecessary casualties, replace combat losses, and sustain its counteroffensive. Kyiv’s list of requested weapons circulating in October included 300 main battle tanks and 1,000 armored personnel carriers. Additional tanks and armored vehicles would help support Ukraine’s counteroffensive by providing the ground maneuver and mobile protected firepower capabilities necessary to exploit opportunities created by artillery fire.

The United States and its European allies certainly should provide some of these capabilities while simultaneously looking beyond NATO stockpiles for Soviet- and Russian-made vehicles that the Ukrainian military could deploy immediately into battle without establishing new time-consuming training programs and burdensome additional logistical systems. Fortunately, there is an ample supply of Soviet- and Russian-made vehicles to be found for Kyiv if Washington looks in the right places.

Ukraine’s recent counteroffensives in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions liberated over 3,800 square miles of Russian-occupied territory, erasing months of Moscow’s gains in weeks. These offensives were enabled by artillery punching holes in Russian lines, HIMARS long-range rocket systems interfering with Russian logistics, Ukrainian air defenses keeping the Russian air force at bay, and poor Russian decision-making combined with a chronic manpower shortage. However tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and armored personnel carriers (APCs) as well as the infantry that ride in and accompany them actually carried out the advances and took back ground.

Without the mobility, survivability, and firepower provided by these vehicles, the Ukrainian military would have been less effective in exploiting breakthroughs in Russian lines. While Ukrainian forces managed to mass enough armored vehicles to conduct the offensives, an insufficient supply forced them to improvise and caused casualties that could have been avoided with better equipment. Throughout the war, Ukrainian troops have been filmed riding in and using improvised civilian pickup trucks, and a Ukrainian official shared a video of soldiers apparently being killed by a Russian cluster munition due to a lack of armor protection.

That might help explain why Kyiv has been asking for large amounts of tanks and armored vehicles for months. In June, Mikhail Podalyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, stated that it would take an additional 500 tanks and 2,000 armored vehicles (among other weapons) to end the war. In September, Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba pressed Germany to deliver Leopard tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles.

To put these requests into perspective, Ukraine possessed at least 3,200 tanks and armored vehicles prior to the February invasion, according to the Military Balance 2021, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Over 90 percent of these vehicles were of Soviet or Russian origin, including virtually all the tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, reconnaissance vehicles, and roughly half of the armored personnel carriers.

Unfortunately, Ukraine has suffered significant losses fighting the Russian invasion. At least 1,000 tanks and armored vehicles have been visually documented as destroyed, damaged, abandoned, or captured by the military analysis site Oryx. These losses, which represent nearly a third of Ukraine’s pre-invasion fleet, have reduced Ukraine’s combat power and consequently endanger Kyiv’s ability to continue conducting counteroffensives and hold Ukrainian territory once recaptured. Vehicles captured from retreating Russian forces, including roughly 500 infantry fighting vehicles, have helped alleviate these losses somewhat, but Ukraine still needs more to equip the “ten to twenty combined military brigades” that Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine General Valerii Zaluzhnyi has stated is necessary for an offensive campaign.

How to Help

There are two main ways for the United States and its allies to quickly assist Kyiv in acquiring armored vehicles: transferring some of their own stocks to Ukraine and acquiring stocks of Soviet- and Russian-made vehicles from third countries. Washington, for its part, has committed to Ukraine 440 MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs) and hundreds of up-armored High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs, often referred to as “Humvees”). Washington should continue those transfers while ensuring U.S. military stocks remain sufficient for potential contingencies. The U.S. has also committed 200 M113 APCs, an older and less capable system.

Congress may also want to ask the administration additional questions about the potential provision of M1 Abrams main battle tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. These systems would certainly provide Ukraine with additional firepower and maneuver capabilities, but would also place a significant additional logistics, sustainment, and training burden on Kyiv. These challenges are surmountable but would take time and effort to resolve, meaning that Washington should urgently pursue interim solutions to help maintain Kyiv’s momentum on the battlefield.

The second method to assist Kyiv is to purchase or otherwise acquire Soviet- and Russian-made vehicles possessed by likeminded partners and then provide them to Ukraine. These transfers would allow the Ukrainian military to use the systems in battle immediately and could even provide additional benefits to U.S. national security objectives by weaning other countries off Russian weaponry. The U.S. and Western Europe have already been backfilling Eastern European countries with NATO-standard equipment, which has enabled significant deliveries of Soviet and Russian equipment to Ukraine. However, existing NATO stocks can only go so far, and Washington will have to look to countries outside of the alliance to acquire the necessary vehicles.

Thankfully, more than 6,300 weapon systems are available for potential transfer from a variety of countries outside of NATO, including more than 3,900 Soviet- or Russian-made vehicles, according to a study the Foundation for Defense of Democracies published in July. The list of probable sources includes countries in Europe, East Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Not every country will agree to transfer their stocks to Ukraine, and the rest will likely request equipment swaps, backfills, or other forms of security assistance, as money will likely prove insufficiently satisfying if the countries confront threats to their security. Nevertheless, there are genuine opportunities that the Biden administration should pursue, leaving no stone unturned in the search for additional equipment for Kyiv.

In Europe, Cyprus and Moldova may be willing to transfer some of their tanks and armored vehicles, which number around 250, including BMP-3s, MT-LBs, and T-80U tanks. The recent lifting of the arms embargo on Cyprus provides an opportunity to work out a deal, and U.S. officials have reportedly approached the Cypriot government. Moldova will be more difficult, as it is constrained by the presence of Russian forces in the breakaway region of Transnistria and its constitutionally mandated neutrality, but the conflict has forced Chisinau to reconsider its security situation, and Moldova has sold some of its Soviet weapons to the United States in the past.

In East Asia, South Korea has 20 BTR-80s, 40 BMP-3s, and 40 T-80U tanks that could be sent to Ukraine. Lethal aid to Ukraine would provide Seoul an opportunity to demonstrate its self-described role as a “global pivotal state”. South Korea’s recent multi-billion dollar arms deal with Poland is a step in the right direction and could allow Poland to free up additional Soviet- or Russian-origin equipment for Ukraine by replacing them with more modern weapons systems from South Korea instead. This deal also indicates South Korea has the capability to produce weapons for export that could go directly to Ukraine if South Korea has the political will to “step up” as called for by President Yoon. Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and missile saber rattling, however, could leave Seoul with the impression it needs all the defense capabilities it can produce.

In Africa, Morocco and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have around 250 Soviet- or Russian-made vehicles that could be transferred, including 200 T-72 tank variants. The United States has previously invited Morocco to attend Ukraine Defense Contact Group meetings. Russia’s close arms relationship with Morocco’s perennial adversary, Algeria, combined with close ties between Rabat and Washington, may push Morocco towards transferring equipment to Ukraine.

Interestingly, Ukraine has been the largest supplier of arms to the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s armed forces in recent years. The DRC has largely acquired its military equipment from former Warsaw Pact nations, meaning Ukraine could immediately use some of the systems. Given the large amount of support the U.S. has provided the DRC and its prior arms relationship with Ukraine, it is possible that Kinshasa may assist Kyiv if given the proper diplomatic and military incentives.

In the Middle East, Egypt, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates together possess at least 2,400 suitable vehicles including over 800 BMP-3s. These stockpiles make the region one of the biggest potential sources of equipment for Ukraine, yet obtaining approval of the respective governments may be difficult.

Egypt deserves special consideration, as it has one of the largest stocks of Soviet- and Russian-made weapons in the world. Egypt has engaged in a balancing act since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started, as Cairo has close ties with both the United States and Russia and is highly vulnerable to the economic disruptions the war has caused. Nevertheless, there is a potential path towards convincing Egypt to transfer some of its equipment.

From 2009 to 2014, the U.S. provided 47 percent of Egypt’s arms imports, but that figure decreased to 14 percent between 2015 and 2020. The shift followed a switch to France and Russia as suppliers, evident in the 2015 Egyptian purchase of 50 MiG-29Ms. However, Egypt reportedly canceled its latest $2 billion purchase of Russian Su-35s, an indication that Egypt may be turning away from Russia as a primary arms importer.

Despite an initially rocky relationship, the Biden administration subsequently approved several arms sales to Egypt from January to May of this year, including aircraft, anti-tank missiles, and air defense systems. Egypt may have trouble relying on Moscow to deliver large quantities of new equipment due to the need to rebuild Russia’s military after heavy losses in Ukraine. Therefore, if Washington can offer Cairo improved systems with better support and sustainment in return for receiving a portion of Egypt’s stockpile, it would be a win for both countries.

The Kuwaiti government has largely stayed on the sidelines but may feel sympathy for Ukraine, having been the victim of an unprovoked invasion in 1990. Washington may be able to convince Kuwait to part with a portion of its stockpile in return for backfilled U.S. equipment or other inducements.

Similarly, the United Arab Emirates has tried to keep some distance from the conflict, but the prospect of declining Russian influence in the Middle East may shift Abu Dhabi’s calculus. Moreover, the demonstrated efficacy of Iranian drones and the threat of renewed Houthi attacks may persuade the UAE that cooperation on Ukraine could provide a path to receive valuable additional U.S. security assistance. Notably, the UAE was approved to purchase 4,500 MRAPs from the United States in 2014, with at least 800 delivered by 2018, the same type of vehicles that Ukraine has already put to good use.

To take back its territory, Kyiv needs the ground maneuver and mobile protected firepower capabilities provided by tanks and armored vehicles. Washington and its allies should continue transferring some of its own stocks to Ukraine while also looking urgently beyond NATO to uncover new sources of armaments for Ukraine. The good news is they are not hard to find.

Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Ryan Brobst is a research analyst. For more analysis from Brad, Ryan, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Brad on Twitter at @Brad_L_Bowman. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power Russia U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy Ukraine