‘Give me an Abrams!’ Ukrainian tank commanders grow impatient.
March 23, 2023 Updated Thu., March 23, 2023 at 9:32 p.m.
The tank commander Poltava, left, and his deputy, Chancellor, preparing to head toward the front line near Bakhmut, Ukraine on March 7, 2023. While both were trained in tank warfare, they left their military careers in the early 1990s, only to resume them in the current war. (Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times)
OUTSKIRTS OF BAKHMUT, Ukraine – Large snowflakes drifted silently through the trees as two Soviet-era tanks roared to life and churned through the mud up the hill. It was daybreak on one of the last days of winter, and the tank commander and his deputy tramped through the snow checking on the men as they readied for battle.
“The snow will give us cover,” said the commander, Poltava, explaining that Russian reconnaissance Orlan-10 drones that frequently fly over Ukrainian positions would be hampered by the weather. “We will bear it. The main thing is for our enemy to have a hard time and go 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 relying on decades-old training, Poltava, 51, and his deputy, Chancellor, 57, embody the resilience of the Ukrainian army. Trained at Ukraine’s Kharkiv Tank Institute more than 30 years ago, they were plucked from the ranks of volunteers soon after Russia invaded Ukraine last year and sent to lead a tank company. They have been fighting ever since.
Their training has kept the men alive and their unit operational month after month. They even expanded their arsenal with a Russian T-72 tank captured in a battle in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, though they expressed frustration with the slow pace of deliveries of promised Western battle tanks that would enable them to take the battle to the Russians.
“We need Western equipment so that we can go out at night,” Chancellor said, “and good communication and good optics. Here, it’s all old.”
In a tough war of attrition, though, their personal history casts light on the broader strength of the Ukrainian resistance.
The two 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 former communist countries and Soviet republics gaining independence, and neither continued his military career for long.
Poltava recalled a defining moment when he was a young officer serving under contract with the Russian military in Georgia. During the Russian intervention to annex the Abkhazia region, he was approached by an older Georgian man who asked him what he was doing there.
“I’m standing there, a young officer, and I say, ‘I’m defending the motherland,’ ” Poltava recalled. “He looks into my eyes. ‘Son, where is your motherland? Where are you from?’ I say, ‘I’m from Kharkiv, Ukraine.’ And he says, ‘And this is Poti, Georgia.’ And he spits in my face. It was like a smack. I was taken aback. And then I thought, ‘Really, what am I doing here?’ ”
Later, he was deployed to Mozdok in the Caucasus republic of North Ossetia, which Russia used as a base for its wars in Chechnya.
“I was tricked,” Poltava said. “They said I was appreciated as an officer, and sent for promotion, but I realized that it was not my thing.” He left and returned home to Ukraine.
Fighting against the Russian army has made him reflect on the many untruths he was taught at the Soviet military college, including that Soviet tanks were superior to the American Abrams tanks.
“Now we are facing them and we see it’s like heaven and earth,” Poltava said, “and we understood how much they brainwashed us.”
“We were always told that the U.S. and NATO were our enemy, and it turned out the opposite,” he said. “Those who we thought were our friends stabbed us in the back.”
His deputy, Chancellor, said he had never believed the Soviet propaganda. Both sides of his family had been oppressed under Stalin; his grandfather on his father’s side was executed in 1939, and his mother and her family were dispossessed and deported from Poland in 1945. His parents built a life in Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine, where Chancellor grew up, but they lost their home in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists seized control of the area.
“My parents were orphans and now Russia wants to destroy my family again,” he said. When Russia invaded Ukraine, he left his job in Germany, sent his four children abroad for safety and signed up to fight. “That’s my story,” he shrugged, “but everyone has a story like this.”
The two commanders were grateful for Western support to Ukraine in the war against Russia, but they are still struggling with the Soviet-era equipment, which needs frequent maintenance. This month, one of their tanks, returning from battle in the evening, stalled repeatedly, belching white smoke. And they had to buy their own radios, which they wear strapped to their chests.
Like many of the Ukrainian units that have been battling to hold the city of Bakhmut from a monthslong Russian offensive, they are hoping the Western tanks will give them the upper hand against the Russians, who have a numerical advantage in equipment and personnel.
Yet, even as they have heard promises from Western capitals of British Challengers, German Leopards and American Abrams tanks, they have been told to hold the lines with the tanks they have.
“We realize that while our colleagues are training on new equipment, we have to hold,” Poltava said. “But we have a reasonable hope.”
His deputy is more impatient.
“You wake up and you think, ‘Oh damn, I woke up in the war again,’ ” 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. “Two-and-a-half hours we were sitting in a hole. Commander, me and a dog.”
Joking apart, the two commanders showed no signs of giving up the fight against Russia.
“They will not withdraw from Ukraine just like that,” Poltava said.
Chancellor said Ukrainians would fight even without Western assistance. “We will beat them even with stones, but it will take longer,” he said. “We will beat them with sticks.”
For all their difficulties, motivation remains high because Ukrainians have more reason to fight than the Russians do, Poltava said: “We are at home. We didn’t invite anyone to come here with weapons.”
Members of his tank crews, their faces grimy from days without a break on the front lines, made light of their lot, too. Some of the men jumped down from their vehicles for a smoke and suddenly cracked up in laughter over a shared joke.
“They are about to go into battle and they are laughing like horses,” Poltava said. “Morale, psychology is OK. They are tired, but they still have a sense of humor.”
The tank unit spends most days lying in wait to ambush Russian troops and engaging them in direct fire fights. “It’s hunting the hunter,” a tank commander, Svyatosha, 38, said with a grin.
“It’s the best job,” he said. “They feed you, dress you, give you an expensive tank, fuel it, give you ammunition. And they don’t charge you money for that. What’s not to like?”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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