Whenever I need to check in on the latest statements from Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, Russian state media and numerous Twitter accounts are there to either promote or analyze Putin’s words. Like this ludicrous interview from Tuesday, when Putin said that Ukraine lost 7,000 men, 160 tanks, and 360 armored vehicles in the opening days of the counteroffensive.
But it’s not really necessary to deal with translations from RT, or with news analysts trying to make sense of Putin’s claims—not when there are any number of Republican sources right here in the United States ready to repeat Putin’s every lie and tell me, every day, how the war in Ukraine will inevitably lead to a Russian victory.
(Black is a former Virginia state senator, not an actual U.S. senator, no matter how he styles himself.)
Still, an even more direct means of transmission is available. A group of African leaders on an outreach trip to both Ukraine and Russia this week didn’t need to do anything to get Putin’s latest message, because he delivered it to them in the form of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones all directed at Kyiv while the peace delegation was in the city.
The peace delegation, which includes leaders from Comoros, Egypt, Senegal, South Africa, and Zambia, met with Ukrainian officials on Friday and was scheduled to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later in the day. Those meetings came after Russia launched a reported six “hypersonic” Kh-47 Kinzhal ballistic missiles and six 3M54 Kalibr cruise missiles into Kyiv. Ukrainian air defenses, including the mighty patriot system, reportedly shot down the full dozen. Air defenses also knocked down a pair of Russian surveillance drones reportedly in the area.
Even if the missiles didn’t actually reach the buildings where the delegation was staying, the visiting leaders seemed to receive Putin’s message quite clearly. As their train arrived in Kyiv, air raid sirens were sounding, and they spent part of their first night in the city in a shelter.
The leaders are reportedly in Ukraine prior to flying on to Russia. In both places, they’re asking leadership to agree to a set of “confidence building measures” that could be used as the basis of peace negotiations. Reuters has seen a draft framework and reports that it includes a proposal to lower sanctions on Russia and suspension of the International Criminal Court charges against Putin. It also includes proposals for removing tactical nuclear weapons from Belarus (which may not exist, and if they do, just happened today) and a Russian troop “pull back,” though how big of a pull back isn’t described.
Ukraine has made it clear that they’re not interested in negotiating a peace that would leave Russian forces in control of Ukrainian territory.
As Ukraine’s minister for foreign affairs wrote, “Putin ‘builds confidence’ by launching the largest missile attack on Kyiv in weeks, exactly amid the visit of African leaders to our capital. Russian missiles are a message to Africa: Russia wants more war, not peace.”
South Africa is actually one of Russia’s partners in the BRICS economic alliance. Launching missiles at your ally’s peace delegation seems like something that ally might remember in the future.
The African leaders complain that sanctions against Russia are hurting their economies, as Russia is one of their major trading partners. If this is true, it’s deeply unfortunate. But considering that Ukraine’s economy fell by 29% last year and is expected to fall by even more this year, especially following the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam, Zelenskyy may not be extremely sympathetic to these arguments.
How to know when Putin is lying
The obvious answer is to check whether or not his lizard-thin lips are moving. However, there’s another even better reason why we can be sure that Putin’s claims of mass destruction of Ukrainian forces are completely false.
And it has to do with Bigfoot.
When I was a kid, I loved stories about Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness Monster, and just about every form of strangeness that ever walked, crawled, or swam (If you’re a real glutton for punishment, you can even listen to me ramble about this on my semi-abandoned podcast). I would sit up at night listening to Frank Edwards and sticking pins into maps, plotting my own expedition to find Mokele-Mbembe.
At the time, the arguments that the world might still be populated by plenty of things we simply hadn’t seen seemed convincing. After all, it’s a big world, there are a lot of trees out there, and most people didn’t run around with a Polaroid glued to their hand. Except now we do. Steve Jobs killed my Bigfoot dreams.
Since Russia launched its illegal invasion of Ukraine, there have been periods in which operational security—especially on the Ukrainian side—has been very tight. Ukrainian forces have generally cooperated in putting their phones down and not sending along those images of a critical battle, a line of smashed vehicles, or a liberated settlement. They've been really good … for a day or two. Then we get to see.
There are nearly 1 million people involved in this fight, almost every one of them is carrying a device that can take video and still images, and all of them can squirt those images straight onto the internet with or without the approval of their leaders. Plus this is taking place in a country where there are millions of civilians who are also nearly all equipped with their own in-hand TV studios. Then there are drone videos. There are civilian volunteers driving right out to the battle front. There are journalists mingling with the troops. There are videos produced by military units that have astoundingly professional polish. There is satellite imagery, available even to civilians, so good that it can often not just spot a vehicle, but determine the make.
Since Tuesday, Putin has updated his claims. He now says that Ukraine has lost 186 tanks and 418 armored vehicles.
Sadly, there is no Bigfoot. Happily, there are also not 186 dead Ukrainian tanks sitting out there in the roughly 5-kilometer zone along the front lines. If there were, Russia would not still be sending out videos of the same handful of vehicles lost in the first two days of the counteroffensive.
Earlier this week, Reuters sent news crews right into the thick of the counteroffensive, to the just liberated towns of Storozheve and Neskuchne. They did not pass 160 dead Ukrainian tanks. But they did pass something.
The road into the newly liberated Ukrainian village of Storozheve is lined with the corpses of Russian soldiers and burnt-out armored vehicles.
The grisly scenes bear witness to the ferocity of fighting as Ukrainian troops recaptured Storozheve and several other villages in the past few days as part of a counteroffensive in southern and eastern Ukraine.
These villages have been occupied by Russia since March 2022, just weeks after the invasion began. Now Russia is gone from those locations, except for the Russian bodies that are still awaiting cleanup everywhere along the line of advance. In that same interview where he falsely claimed 160 Ukrainian tanks had been lost, Putin also said that 54 Russian tanks had been destroyed. That part may be pretty close to true. So far, Oryx has cataloged 35 Russian tanks lost since the counteroffensive began around the first of the month. Given another couple of days to catch up to the latest photos, they may well match Putin’s number.
Meanwhile, the actual number of Leopard tanks damaged or destroyed so far seems to be five. At least two of these have been recovered and are being repaired.
Ukraine is on the offensive, but Russia is losing more men and more vehicles. That’s pretty amazing all on its own. And it wouldn’t be happening except that, as kos wrote yesterday, Russia has no concept of strategy.
That’s not a tank. Yes it is. No it’s not.
When Western allies began delivering a bigger variety of vehicles to the Ukrainian military, there was some debate over what can properly be called a “tank.” For example, the French AMX-10rc may look very like what used to be called a “light tank,” and it may play that role for France’s military in Africa. But it also has wheels instead of treads so … not a tank.
On the other hand, when Russia began to run low on its supply of T-80s and T-72s and began sorting through warehouses for aging T-62s (which entered service in 1961) and T-54s (entered service 1948), people made fun of Russia for hauling out such antique hardware. But no one doubted that these old dogs were real tanks—real bad tanks. But still, tanks.
Except it turns out they are not. Or at least they’re not being used as tanks.
On Monday, Ukraine reported that it had liberated the town of Lobkove. At the time, there were also reports that Russian forces had fled from positions in Pyatykhatky and Zherebyanky to regroup around Luhove. But on Thursday there were reports that Russia had arranged a new offensive and was pushing up from Luhove with the intention of reoccupying this area.
On Friday, there are reports of heavy fighting west of Pyatykhatky and around Zherebyanky as, once again, Russia seems intent on defending the area ahead of its defensive line. But there’s an interesting detail to this fight. According to multiple Russian sources, both T-62 tanks and T-54 tanks are in the area, not acting as tanks, but as supplemental artillery.
For the crews of these tanks, whose armor would be excessively Swiss-cheesy when encountering anything more modern, sitting some distance from the battlefield must be appreciated. But in terms of acting as artillery, these things have to suck. They have none of the tools that help artillery be accurate over long distances. The old D-10 tank guns on these vehicles can theoretically lob a shell around 15 kilometers, they just can’t hit anything. Their maximum accurate firing range is about 2 kilometers, and that’s with a visible, stationary target and a lot of time to aim.
Furthermore, tank barrels aren’t designed for that kind of wear. “According to the Russian independent news outlet The Insider, Russian tank barrels have a service life from 210 rounds of armor-piercing sub-caliber rounds to 840 rounds of high explosive and shaped charge rounds,” reported Defense Blog. “At the same time, rifled artillery barrels, depending on caliber, projectile type and range, have a life of up to 2,000-3,000 rounds.”
Still, a lot of what’s happening now on the southern Ukraine front seems to be coming down to counter-battery fire. These tanks aren’t taking out Ukrainian guns, but they may at least draw fire away from Russia’s real artillery. If so, prepare for some big numbers in terms of Russian tanks lost over the next couple of days, even if these tanks were not being used as tanks.
Elsewhere on the southern front, Ukraine is reportedly staging a fresh assault on the area around Robotyne, which would be the spot where that handful of Leopard tanks and Bradley IFVs were lost last week. Maybe Russia will soon have something new to photograph. Hopefully not.
Ukraine has also reportedly made advances near Vuhledar following another failed Russian assault in the area, but the extent of this advance isn’t yet clear.
When do we get another Kursk?
While Russia is busy using its tanks as artillery, the few Leopard tanks damaged so far have been due almost entirely to mines. None of them has been taken out by a hit from another tank.
Throughout the invasion, actual tank-on-tank combat has been rare, and when it has happened it’s been in the form of one or two tanks on each side, duking it out around a row of trees or among the buildings of a small village. There have been none of the massive tank battles that were key to shifting fates in World War II. Which really seems kind of surprising, considering how many decades Western analysts spent sweating over the idea of Russian tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap.
For tank fans, it’s been something of a disappointment. No one has seen the kind of Leopard 2-on-T-80 action so many craved, and even the approach of drier weather didn’t mean rows of tanks sailing across fields to confront their opposite numbers.
So far in the counteroffensive, a large part of that has been defined by those mines. There are so many mines so tightly packed up there on the perimeter of Russian-occupied territory that picking a route through them is slow, tedious, and extremely dangerous business. Three of those five damaged Leopards were trying to clear mines.
If there are going to be any real tank battles—engagements with a large number of tanks blasting away on each side, testing their armor and aim—those are going to happen on the other side of the Russian defensive lines. Even then, it seems improbable. At some point, when a path through the mines has been cleared and the way south is open, Ukraine may actually mount an armored force with a hundred tanks or more, all rolling in the same direction. Russia may form up to meet them, but it’s more likely to be mines, trenches, and artillery all the way down.
If Russia really does square up in a tank vs. tank faceoff, it’s going to be because they’re desperate. And a lot of Russians in very old tanks are going to be unhappy.
Just when you thought the Mariupol circus was the saddest form of Russian entertainment:
Ukraine is going to have some very well-trained pilots. Now, will they let them take the planes home at the end of the course?
This is a counter-battery radar system, so taking it out is a very good thing for gunners in the Bakhmut area.