Tanks are not exactly fuel-efficient. The Russian T-72 manages about 0.8 miles per gallon, though, of course, being Europeans, at least in theory, the Russians measure it in kilometers per liter, which works out to 0.38 km/lt.
Significant because, without fuel, a tank is just a cannon with aspirations. And even with fuel, they’re often merely big rolling funeral pyres.
War offers a chaos of detail. As we sit and watch, we choose which story lines to absorb, which to ignore. Focusing on what feels good: the heroism of the Ukrainian resistance, the courage of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the unexpected severity of sanctions imposed by governments and businesses. When McDonald’s steps into the fray, you know something unusual is happening.
Or we focus on what we feel obligated, as human beings, to consider: the suffering of the Ukrainian people. The hardships facing millions of refugees. The risk to ourselves in this delicate geopolitical moment, with Russia begging China for arms, and European leaders traveling to embattled Kyiv.
Rather than symbols of strength, all those tanks are an argument for how weak and disorganized the Russians have been. They can barely invade Ukraine, never mind face NATO and the United States. Russia went into this folly without a plan and, apparently, without adequate supplies, not only of fuel but food, water and ammunition. Some tanks didn’t have to be destroyed; they were merely abandoned.
When the first images of burning Russian tanks started flitting around Twitter, as well as Ukrainian farmers towing tanks with their tractors, I wondered how the supporting infantry accompanying the tanks let the Ukrainians get close enough to destroy them.
Now. it turns out that the tanks often had no supportive infantry. Nor can they operate off-road because of the season Russia chose for the invasion: too much mud.
Tanks are useful in open areas. Especially deserts. That’s where we find most of the militarily significant tank battles since World War II, whether “Desert Sabre” during the Gulf War over Kuwait in 1991, or when Syrians sent 1,000 tanks across the Valley of Tears at the Start of the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
Have the Russian tanks done anything besides get bogged down on rural highways? If so, I’ve missed it.
That’s why the Russians are indiscriminately shelling cities. Because, unlike the Ukrainian military, apartment buildings are big, stay in one place and are easy to hit. As to what that does, other than kill civilians and stoke international outrage, I can’t imagine.
Tanks are the military descendants of cavalry, whose job was to race forward in battle and break up defensive lines. If there are no battles and no defensive lines to break up, tanks are not very useful. They’re just fuel-sucking targets, blown apart by shoulder-fired missiles and Turkish drones, symbols of this new era we find ourselves in.
That was clear on the first day of the war, when Google Maps flagged the traffic problems caused by Russian tanks crossing the border. The tanks are almost a subconscious leveling of the playing field between the behemoth Russia and Ukraine, since a A T-14 Armata costs $3.7 million, 20 times the price of a Javelin missile, at $175,000.
The financial loss to pariah Russia will no doubt be far greater than the physical damage to Ukraine, of course setting aside the loss of priceless lives and the infliction of deathless trauma.
It’s too early to tally, but this disaster might not be without benefits. Putin has harmed himself in a way his enemies never could, exposing the weakness of the Russian system, once again, a lesson that Americans seem to need to learn anew every generation. I can’t help but think the Chinese, viewing this as a chance to gauge the West’s reaction to their longed-for seizure of Taiwan, must be re-considering the wisdom of blowing up decades of international success so they can swallow a bauble it never possessed yet they imagine is rightly theirs.
Russian tank crews have jury-rigged metal cages over their turrets, hoping they’ll deflect anti-tank rockets. But mostly the effect is psychological — imaginary rather than actual protection. Western analysts called them “emotional support cages,” with The Economist comparing them to the ghost shirts of Lakota warriors that were supposed to stop bullets but did not.
Right now, nothing seems as if it can stop the bullets, missiles and shells. While all we can do is watch and speculate.