Beaten Twice In Ukraine, Russia’s Elite 1st Guards Tank Army Is Poised To Attack Yet Again

The Russian army apparently is repositioning heavy forces in advance of a widely-anticipated winter offensive in Luhansk Oblast in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

The forces include elements of the elite 1st Guards Tank Army, which has spent months in Belarus, recovering from its near-destruction by Ukrainian brigades during two previous, large-scale operations.

A Luhansk offensive would be the 1st Guards Tank Army’s third chance to prove itself in Ukraine. Or, alternatively, a third chance for Ukrainian forces to wreck the formation.

“Ukrainian intelligence relatedly noted that elements of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army of the Western Military District have withdrawn from Belarus and partially deployed to Luhansk Oblast,” the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War noted on Wednesday.

The 1st Guard Tank Army oversees two front-line divisions—the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division and the 4th Guards Tank Division—plus a few separate brigades. Perhaps 25,000 or 30,000 troops, in all.

With its hundreds of T-72, T-80 and T-90 tanks and BMP-2 and BMP-3 fighting vehicles, the Moscow-based army on paper is one of the most powerful ground-combat formations in the world.

In reality, it has suffered from the same poor leadership and logistical shortfalls that have vexed all Russian forces in Ukraine.

The 1st Guards Tank Army’s initial embarrassment came in the first few weeks of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, as Russian troops rolled south from Belarus and southern Russia, aiming to capture Kyiv and bring the war to a swift end.

The tank army met stiff resistance around Chernihiv, 60 miles north of Kyiv. The Ukrainian 1st Tank Brigade deployed its 100 T-64 tanks into the forests around Chernihiv and engaged the passing Russians at point-blank range.

The Russians outnumbered the Ukrainians around Chernihiv. But the Ukrainians fought harder and smarter, analysts Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds explained in a study for the Royal United Services Institute in London.

“Better crew training combined with short-ranged engagements where their armament was competitive, and the faster autoloader on the T-64, allowed Ukrainian tank crews to achieve significant damage against surprised Russian units,” Zabrodskyi, Watling, Danylyuk and Reynolds wrote.

For six weeks the Ukrainian brigade and its supporting territorials held out in Chernihiv. Critically, the Russian battalions rolling past Chernihiv never fully cut off the city.

In late March, the Kremlin ordered its battered forces around Kyiv to retreat. That’s when the 1st Tank Brigade, still holding out in Chernihiv, counterattacked.

By the time the Russian army retreated back to Belarus and southern Russia, the 1st Guards Tank Army’s 2nd Motor Rifle Division had suffered “major losses,” according to the U.K. Defense Ministry.

The 1st Guards Tank Army’s other division, the 4th Tanks Guards Division, suffered its own disaster six months later around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city just 25 miles from the Russian border in northeastern Ukraine.

In late August and early September, Ukrainian brigades based in free Kharkiv launched a major counteroffensive that, in a heady few weeks of fast fighting, routed Russian troops in the northeast—including the 4th Guards Tank Division.

The Ukrainian 4th Tank Brigade’s T-72s and T-64s hit the Russian 4th Guards Tank Division hard outside Izium.

By the time the Russian division retreated north toward the Russian border, it had lost around 90 T-80U tanks that independent analysts could confirm. That’s half the tanks the division should possess at full strength.

Beaten twice, the 1st Guards Tank Army settled into garrison in Belarus for a long winter reset. But heavy ongoing losses in Ukraine prevented the Kremlin from sending the tank army the best people and equipment.

The army’s 2nd Motor Rifle Division “is now primarily made up of mobilized personnel operating older equipment taken from storage,” the U.K. Defense Ministry stated. “Its combat effectiveness will likely be limited despite several weeks of training.”

Ready or not, the 1st Guards Tank Army units that have redeployed to Luhansk apparently are poised for a major attack. “The array of conventional forces across the Luhansk Oblast front line suggests that Russian forces may be preparing for a decisive effort in this sector,” ISW explained.

The timing probably is no accident. Ukraine’s allies in recent weeks have pledged hundreds of high-end tanks and fighting vehicles to the Ukrainian war effort. They include American M-1 tanks, German Leopard 2 tanks, British Challenger 2 tanks and some of Sweden’s best fighting vehicles and mobile howitzers.

The Ukrainian army could form around these vehicles several powerful new tank and mechanized brigades. But the Russians’ Luhansk offensive might begin before those new forces are ready for combat.

It’s now or never for the 1st Guard Tank Army. The army’s prospects at best are uncertain in this, its possible third major operation in Ukraine. But they’ll be even less certain once the Ukrainians have deployed their new tanks.