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Moscow Appoints ‘Top Tankman’ As Ukraine War Commander As Russian T-90 Braces For Clash With European Tanks

With the prospect of facing Western tanks in Ukraine as Poland and the United Kingdom reportedly finalize on sending its Leopard-2 and Challenger-2 Main Battle Tanks (MBT), Russia has appointed its top tankman – its military chief – to direct operations.

Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov is a career armored corps officer. His transfer comes in the backdrop of Russia’s T-90M being inducted and the introduction of the modernized ‘M’ version of the Ka-52 ‘Alligator’ attack helicopter. Moscow appears to be preparing a classic tank war in Ukraine.

General Valery Gerasimov, the new overall commander of Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO) in Ukraine

Europe’s ‘Tanking Will’ To Arm Ukraine

Polish, German, and British leaders have symbolically announced approval for sending the machines. Still, they have not gone ahead with it owing to four factors – permanently souring already tense ties with Russia, waiting for one European country to make the first move, awaiting a nod from Washington, and depleting their ammunition stockpiles.

Following Polish Prime Minister Moraweicki’s clarification that Poland would not hand over tanks to Ukraine “without a broader coalition,” pressure built on Germany to remove its veto on countries wanting to transfer German-origin weapons.

While these countries can transfer only between 10 to 15 tanks, far less than the 300 Ukraine’s military chief General Valery Zaluzhny has said would be needed, they are hoped to make some sweeping tactical gains on the ground. This allows any negotiated settlement to be more on Ukraine’s terms than Russia’s.

Gerasimov’s appointment comes against this backdrop, where Russian T-90 and T-72B3 could exchange fire with Leopards and Challengers in the east.

He assumes an operational command after a decade of heading the Russian military as its Chief of General Staff and one of its senior-most armored corps officers, having served since the time of the former Soviet Union. Gerasimov rose through Russia’s tank forces ranks and graduated from the Military Academy of the General Staff in 1997.

Who Will Send Their Tanks First?

But the politics surrounding the Leopard-2 and Challenger-2 transfer is more intriguing. Last week, The Guardian reported Britain is considering sending around 10 Challenger-2s to Ukraine, which the UK later confirmed.

This was followed by Germany’s Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck publicly supporting approving requests from other countries, such as Poland, to send the Leopard 2.

A German Army Leopard-2A5 during a training exercise

This indicates an attempt to build pressure on Germany, which has supplied nearly 2,000 Leopard-2s to 13 European countries.

Apart from Poland, these include Spain, Greece, Turkey, Hungary, and Slovakia. Germany has sent Ukraine an unspecified number of Marder Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV), Gepard tracked anti-aircraft gun system and the IRIS-T surface-to-air missile (SAM) platform.

But there has been no sign of the United States sending its M1A1/2 Abrams MBT, which Biden administration officials have indicated is unlikely.

Steel On Steel

Ukraine uses old Soviet-era T-72s donated by Poland and the Czech Republic last April, another Soviet-origin T-64, and the locally developed T-80. Since April, the Czech Republic transferred at least 40 T-72M1 tanks in return for being replenished with German-origin Leopard-2A4 tanks, part of a circular deal.

The first 14 replacement tanks arrived in the Czech Republic in late December last year. Poland was reported to have received Challenger-2 tanks from the UK to “backfill” its inventory, as was announced by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in late April last year.

Thus, Russian T-90 and T-72B3 could exchange fire with Leopards and Challengers in the east. The Leopard, particularly, has been adjudged capable of taking on Russian armor with its sloped turret and a powerful Rheinmetall RH-M 120 mm smoothbore gun. \

Capable of firing the Armor-Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) and High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds, experts believe it can penetrate the T-72’s frontal armor at a distance of 2,000 meters.

A Russian T-90M during a military demonstration

Russia is preparing for the clash, heavily advertising the T-90M, the latest version of its most powerful tank. Since December last year, it announced new batches of tanks reaching the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), Central Military District (CMD), and PMC Wagner units.

Russian Telegram channels have recorded tank crews boasting about the T-90M ‘Proryv’ (meaning ‘breakthrough’) and challenging the Western machines.

The Russian Army, meanwhile, has received ten upgraded Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters of the ‘M’ variant. The Ka-52M has a new GOES-451M electro-optical targeting turret with increased range, stronger landing gear wheels, improved cockpit ergonomics, and better adaptation to night vision goggles. It can also carry the latest LMUR missile.

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