Ukraine Has Exactly One T-80UK Command Tank. It Just Fought A Dangerous Solo Battle Near Bakhmut.

The Ukrainian army has captured exactly one Russian T-80UK command tank that independent analysts have been able to confirm.

That sole command tank, perhaps the rarest in Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, just made a dramatic reappearance.

Speeding along the E40 highway just north of Bakhmut on or around Tuesday, the tank’s three-man crew intercepted a Russian infantry force trying to make a daytime end-run around the Ukrainian garrison in Bakhmut.

But the T-80UK’s impressive-seeming mission isn’t actually good news for Ukraine. A tank shouldn’t be operating all alone on a battlefield teeming with drones, attack helicopters and precision artillery.

The T-80UK is a 43-ton, turbine-powered T-80U with a suite of enhancements including extra radios, a better navigation system and a new thermal sight.

The turbine makes the tank fast. The extra radios lend the crew situational awareness: the commander can talk to more other units at the same time.

Russia’s Kirov tank plant in St. Petersburg developed the T-80UK in the 1990s, mostly for export. But the Russian army took delivery of a few of the speedy tanks with their distinctive dual radio antennae.

The 11-month-old wider war in Ukraine hasn’t been kind to Russia’s armor corps. Russian brigades have lost at least 1,500 tanks, including around 500 that the Ukrainians captured. The losses include around 400 T-80s, including that one T-80UK, which the Russians abandoned back in March.

The Ukrainians recovered the abandoned T-80UK, fixed it up, slapped on fresh markings and gave it to the 30th Mechanized Brigade, one the Ukrainian army’s older heavy formations.

The 30th Mechanized Brigade is a former Soviet formation that, for 23 years following the fall of the Soviet Union, provided much of the new Ukrainian army’s heavy firepower. When Russian forces invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula back in 2014, the 30th was one of the few brigades that Kyiv could count on to stand and fight.

In early 2014, the brigade held positions just north of Crimea in order to deter further Russian advances. When Russian-backed separatists attacked in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region later that year, the 30th rolled east to engage them.

Today the 3,000-strong brigade with its T-64 tanks, BMP fighting vehicles and 2S1 and 2S3 howitzers holds the line north of Bakhmut, 30 miles north of Donetsk, the seat of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic in Donbas.

The Russian army and its allies from The Wagner Group, a shadowy mercenary firm, since last spring have been trying—and so far failing—to capture Bakhmut, a city with a pre-war population of 70,000 that, aside from abutting a few roads, has little strategic value.

But it’s in Bakhmut that Wagner has chosen to prove its human-wave assaults—thousands of under-trained ex-convicts throwing themselves at Ukrainian positions—could work, and where the Russian army has chosen to begin escalating its operations in Donbas in anticipation of what observers expect will be much wider winter offensive.

Having failed to capture Bakhmut with direct, human-wave assaults, Russian forces now are trying to encircle the city and cut off its garrison from resupply. On or around Wednesday, Russian infantry marched parallel to the E40 highway between Bakhmut and Zaliznyans’ke.

It’s apparent the Russians had found a gap in Ukrainian defenses. Tom Cooper, an independent expert on the Russian military, believes the gap appeared as the Ukrainian army rotated fresh brigades into the Bakhmut sector. “The Russians broke through and drove for almost a kilometer in [a] western direction, almost reaching Zaliznyans’ke,” Cooper wrote.

The 30th Mechanized Brigade scrambled to respond. The unit for months has been using its older, diesel-powered T-64 tanks as improvised artillery, shifting them from one earthen dugout to the next, each tank firing a few rounds from its 125-millimeter gun before moving to the next position.

The T-64 is a reliable tank, but it’s slower than the turbine-powered T-80 variants are, so it should come as no surprise the 30th tapped its sole, ex-Russian T-80UK to plug the gap in Ukrainian lines. A drone flew overwatch as the T-80UK sped along the highway and opened fire on the Russians.

Ukrainian forces ultimately halted the Russian advance outside Zaliznyans’ke, according to the general staff in Kyiv. It’s tempting to view the T-80UK’s swift and dramatic solo mission as an example of Ukrainian battlefield prowess.

In fact, the mission was an act of desperation by an army that usually operates more professionally. Tanks are extremely vulnerable when they operate alone and unsupported, like the T-80UK apparently did that day.

Indeed, the Russian army’s bad habit of sending tanks into battle without adequate infantry support helps to explain why the Russians have lost 1,500 tanks, while the Ukrainians have lost just 500.

The Ukrainian army is about to take delivery of a whole lot of fresh tanks—Challenger 2s from the United Kingdom; Leopard 1s and Leopard 2s from Germany, Poland and Canada; M-1s from the United States.

If you ever see one of those tanks speeding all alone, in broad daylight, along some highway just a mile or two from the main line of contact, it’s a sure sign Ukrainian forces in the area are in big trouble.