Key point: Kyiv found a way to give its aging tanks much better armor.
With the war in eastern Ukraine dragging into its sixth year, the government in Kiev is buying upgraded models of a Cold War tank in an effort to outmatch Russia-backed rebels.
The Ukrainian army has acquired around 150 “T-64 2017s” since 2018, Radio Free Europe reported.
The T-64 is unique among Soviet-style tanks. A departure and major advancement compared to existing tanks when it first appeared in the early 1960s, the T-64 actually is more Ukrainian than it is Russian. The Lviv Tank Plant factory that builds the T-64 is in Ukraine. And today the Ukrainian army is the major user of the type.
Another major user is the rebel army in eastern Ukraine.
The T-64 introduced a number of advancements, including a new diesel engine. It also replaces the human loader with an automatic device for ramming shells into the breech, reducing the overall crew to just three people and saving weight. The T-64 was the first Soviet tanks with the now-standard 125-millimeter smooth-bore cannon, which in upgraded T-64Bs can fire a guided missile through its tube.
The Soviets never exported the T-64, preferring to sell cheaper, simpler T-55s, T-62s and T-72s. Throughout the later decades of the Cold War, thousands of T-64s equipped Soviet armies, primed to wage apocalyptic tank war with American M-1s, German Leopards and British Challengers.
The T-64 was more than adequate to the task. “This particular tank was provided with certain capabilities that were more advanced than NATO tanks that would not appear for an additional 15 or 16 years,” U.S. Army major James Warford concluded in a 1992 thesis.
When the Soviet Union broke up, Ukraine inherited hundreds of T-64s … and the factory that built the tanks. The rebuilt T-64BM Bulat introduced new armor and a so-called “active defense” system than shoots projectiles in order to intercept incoming rockets. The current T-64 2017 adds modern thermal imagers, secure digital communications and satellite navigation.
When eastern separatists—armed, supplied and reinforced by Russian agents—rose up in April 2014, demanding to split away from Kiev and join Moscow, Ukraine sent T-64s into combat.