Ukrainian commanders frustrated with slow Western tank deliveries

OUTSIDE OF BAKHMUT, Ukraine — Large flakes of snow drifted silently through the trees as two Soviet-era tanks roared and rolled through the mud up the hill. It was dawn on one of the last days of winter, and the tank commander and his deputy walked through the snow watching the men as they prepared for battle.

“The snow will cover us,” Commander Poltava said, explaining that Russian Orlan-10 reconnaissance drones that frequently fly over Ukrainian positions would be hampered by the weather. “We will support it. The main thing is that our enemy has a hard time and goes home.

Like other members of the Ukrainian military in this article, he insisted on being identified only by his code name.

Equipped with Soviet-era tanks and drawing on decades-old training, Poltava, 51, and his deputy, the Chancellor, 57, epitomize the resilience of Ukraine’s military. Trained at the Ukrainian Tank Institute in Kharkiv more than 30 years ago, they were plucked from volunteer ranks shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine last year and sent to lead a tank company . Since then they have been fighting.

Their training kept the men alive and their unit running month after month. They even expanded their arsenal with a Russian T-72 tank captured in a battle in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, although they expressed frustration at the slow tank deliveries from Western combat promises that would allow them to lead the battle against the Russians.

“We need western equipment to be able to go out at night,” Chancellor said, “and good communication and good optics. Everything here is old.

In a bitter war of attrition, however, their personal story shines a light on the broader strength of Ukrainian resistance.

Both men graduated from the tank academy within a few years of each other – chancellor in 1988 and Poltava in 1992. It was a tumultuous time, with the breakup of the Soviet Union and more than a dozen alumni communist countries and soviet republics gaining independence. , and neither of them continued their military careers for long.

Poltava recalled a defining moment when he was a young officer serving under contract with the Russian army in Georgia. During the Russian intervention to annex the region of Abkhazia, he was approached by an older Georgian man who asked him what he was doing there.

“I stand there, a young officer, and I say, ‘I defend the fatherland,'” Poltava recalled. “He looks me in the eye. “Son, where is your homeland? Where are you from?’ I say, ‘I am from Kharkiv, Ukraine.’ And he said, ‘And this is Poti, Georgia.’ And he spits in my face. It was like a slap. I was stunned. And then I thought, ‘Really, what am I doing here?’

Later, he was deployed to Mozdok in the Caucasian republic of North Ossetia, which Russia used as a base for its wars in Chechnya.

“I was cheated,” Poltava said. “They said I was valued as an officer and sent for a promotion, but I realized that wasn’t my thing.” He left and returned home to Ukraine.

Fighting the Russian army made him reflect on the many untruths he was taught at Soviet military college, including that Soviet tanks were superior to American Abrams tanks.

“Now we face them and see it’s like heaven and earth,” Poltava said, “and we’ve realized how much they’ve brainwashed us.”

“We were always told that the United States and NATO were our enemies, and it turned out otherwise,” he said. “Those we thought were our friends stabbed us in the back.”

His deputy, the Chancellor, said he never believed Soviet propaganda. Both sides of his family had been oppressed under Stalin; his paternal grandfather was executed in 1939, and his mother and family were dispossessed and expelled from Poland in 1945. His parents built a life in Luhansk, eastern Ukraine, where Chancellor grew up, but they lost their home in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists took control of the area.

“My parents were orphans and now Russia wants to destroy my family again,” he said. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he quit his job in Germany, sent his four children overseas for safety, and pledged to fight. “It’s my story,” he said with a shrug, “but everyone has a story like this.”

Both commanders were grateful for Western support for Ukraine in the war against Russia, but they still struggle with Soviet-era equipment, which requires frequent maintenance. This month, one of their tanks, returning from battle in the evening, repeatedly stalled, belching white smoke. And they had to buy their own radios, which they wear strapped to their chests.

Like many Ukrainian units that fought to hold the town of Bakhmut after a month-long Russian offensive, they hope Western tanks will give them the upper hand over the Russians, who have a numerical advantage in equipment and personnel. Yet even as they heard promises from Western capitals of British Challenger tanks, German Leopards and American Abrams, they were told to hold the lines with whatever tanks they have.

“We realize that while our colleagues are training on new equipment, we have to hold on,” Poltava said. “But we have a reasonable hope.”

His deputy is more impatient.

“You wake up and you think, Oh fuck, I woke up again during the war,” he said. “Give me an Abrams or get me out of here!”

Their position had been shelled overnight, he said, and a few days earlier he and Poltava had narrowly escaped injury in an artillery strike.

“I’m standing there, and right behind the tank – WHAM!” he said. “Half past two, we were sitting in a hole. Commander, me and a dog.

Joking aside, the two commanders showed no signs of giving up the fight against Russia.

“They won’t pull out of Ukraine like this,” Poltava said.

The Chancellor said the Ukrainians would fight even without Western help. “We will beat them even with stones, but it will take longer,” he said. “We will beat them with sticks.”

Despite all their difficulties, the motivation remains high because the Ukrainians have more reason to fight than the Russians, said Poltava: “We are at home. We didn’t invite anyone to come here with weapons.

Members of his tank crews, grim-faced after uninterrupted days on the front lines, also shed light on their fate. Some of the men jumped out of their vehicle to smoke and suddenly burst into laughter over a shared joke.

“They’re about to go into battle and they’re laughing like horses,” Poltava said. “The morale, the psychology, it’s OK. They are tired, but they still have a sense of humor.

The tank unit spends most of its days waiting to ambush Russian troops and engage them in direct fire. “It’s hunter hunting,” said tank commander Svyatosha, 38, with a smile.

“It’s the best work,” he says. “They feed you, clothe you, give you an expensive tank, refuel it, give you ammunition. And they don’t charge you money for it. What’s not to love?

Oleksandr Chubko contributed report.

nytimes Eur

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