The 1st Tank Brigade, arguably Ukraine’s best tank formation, didn’t just survive the brutal bombardment that preceded Russia’s wider invasion of Ukraine starting the early morning of Feb. 24.
The 1st Tank Brigade’s six-week defence of the city of Chernihiv, near the border with Belarus just 60 miles north of Kyiv, already was the stuff of legend when analysts Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr Danylyuk and Nick Reynolds revealed incredible new details in a study for the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Russian commanders apparently assumed the 1st Tank Brigade would be an easy target on day one of the wider war. In the early morning hours of Feb. 24, Russian missiles and artillery struck the permanent garrisons of most of the Ukrainian army’s 20 or so active brigades.
But these brigades, including the 1st Tank Brigade, had dispersed. The Russian bombardment mostly destroyed empty buildings.
The 1st Tank Brigade’s 2,000 troopers and roughly 100 T-64B and T-64BM tanks—some of the best tanks in the Ukrainian inventory—lay in wait in the fields and forests surrounding Chernihiv.
The Russian 41st Combined Arms Army barrelled south from its staging areas around the Belarus-Russia border, quickly arriving at Chernihiv. On paper, the 41st CAA with its 20,000 troops and hundreds of T-72 tanks vastly outmatched the 1st Tank Brigade.
In reality, the 1st Tank Brigade held key advantages, Zabrodskyi, Watling, Danylyuk and Reynolds explained.
“Modernized T-64s are equipped with digital radios, new internal communication and navigation systems, sighting systems with thermal imaging cameras, modified dynamic protection and other necessary options,” the analysts wrote. “The T-64BM ‘Bulat’ weapon system also includes the Ukrainian-made TAKO-621 tank missile system, enabling engagement of armoured vehicles, fortifications, helicopters and other targets at a distance of up to [5,500 yards] using Kombat guided missiles.”
But it was the autoloader in the three-person T-64—and the Ukrainian army’s superior training, of course—that made the most difference in the chaotic early fights around Chernihiv. “The first days of fighting saw numerous meeting engagements in forests at around [110-to-220-yard] range, where restricted movement limited the Russian ability to bring their mass to bear against a specific tactical situation,” Zabrodskyi, Watling, Danylyuk and Reynolds wrote.
“Better crew training combined with short-ranged engagements where their armament was competitive, and the faster autoloader on the T-64, allowed Ukrainian tank crews to achieve significant damage against surprised Russian units.”
The 1st Tank Brigade bled the 41st CAA for several days until Russian commanders decided simply to bypass Chernihiv. Kyiv was the Russians’ main prize. As Russian battalions rolled past, the 1st Tank Brigade “found itself encircled.”
The brigade still possessed many, if not most, of its tanks. But it was hurting for infantry. And as the Russians would learn—or relearn—in coming weeks and months, tanks without adequate infantry support are vulnerable to the enemy’s own infantry and their anti-tank missiles.
There was a territorial brigade in Chernihiv, however. The territorials—lightly-armed local volunteers—screened the 1st Tank Brigade’s T-64s as the brigade adopted an all-around defence of the city.
For six weeks the brigade and its supporting territorials held out. Critically, the Russian battalions rolling past Chernihiv never fully cut off the city. “Communication with the 1st Tank Brigade was maintained along a small supply road running northwards on the left bank of the Dnipro [River] that the Russians failed to sever, despite having an overwhelming force presence,” the RUSI analysts wrote. “This speaks to the poor situational awareness and lack of active patrolling by Russian units.”
Having bypassed Chernihiv, the Russian army tried—and failed—to capture Kyiv and bring the war to a swift end. Two Ukrainian army artillery brigades, entrenched in and around the capital city, pummelled the attacking Russian battalions while Ukrainian special forces raided the Russians’ supply lines.
In late March, the Kremlin ordered its battered forces around Kyiv to retreat. That’s when the 1st Tank Brigade, still holding out in Chernihiv, attacked. On March 31, the brigade liberated the M01 highway connecting Chernihiv to Kyiv.
The siege was over. The Ukrainians had won.
The 1st Tank Brigade was badly damaged in its six-week defence of Chernihiv. While the Ukrainian army never has released precise casualty figures, it’s saying that the brigade after this spring’s battles spent several months resting, refitting and recruiting new troopers.
Today the brigade is back in action—in the east. Ten months ago, it fought a legendary defensive campaign. Today … it’s on the attack.