Ukraine Wants Used Tanks From NATO: A Look at Which it May Receive From Polish PT-91s to Bulgarian T-72M1s

Since the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine on February 24, Western countries have continued deliveries of considerable quantities of armaments to supply both the Ukrainian Military and various government-aligned militias. Most notable among these have been man portable anti tank and anti aircraft missiles which have been key to allowing Ukrainian infantry to challenge the Russian Military asymmetrically. Large scale deliveries to Ukraine were notably made over several years from 2014, when the Ukrainian government was overthrown and a new Western-aligned leadership gained power, and these escalated from late 2021 preceding the outbreak of open hostilities. The Ukrainian government has repeatedly requested Western military intervention in the conflict against Russia, but has also made calls for provision of new equipment including fighter aircraft and, more recently, battle tanks. While Ukraine fields more tanks than any other European country by a considerable margin, with over 850 in service, these have reportedly taken considerable losses and represent one of the most obsolete tank forces on the continent comprised of T-72A and T-64B tanks from the 1970s which with few exceptions have not received significant upgrades. A number of NATO member states formerly in the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact retain inventories of Soviet tanks which could potentially be easily integrated into the Ukrainian Army, although the viability of such transfers and whether countries will be willing to part with their armour remains highly questionable. 

Ukraine’s request for tanks is somewhat unusual considering that it has well over 1000 tanks in reserve, many of which like the T-80 are much more capable than its current frontline inventory but are not fielded actively due to their much higher operational costs than older 1970s vehicles. The possibility remains that Russian air and missile strikes have significantly damaged Ukrainian reserves, or else that they are in too poor a state to  be made combat ready in reasonable time following decades of reported neglect. Another possibility is that Ukraine is seeking tanks with lower operational costs and lower maintenance needs than the T-80, but which are still more sophisticated than its T-72s and T-64s. Another possibly is that Kiev’s request, specifically for 500 NATO tanks, could be intended for political ends and not reflect the genuine needs of the Ukrainian armed forces. 

A number of tanks fielded by NATO member states could be compatible with the Ukrainian inventory and relatively simple to convert Ukrainian crews onto, most notably the T-72M of which Slovakia fields 30 and the Czech Republic 89 more in storage, the T-72M1/M2 of which Bulgaria fields 90 and Hungary 44, the T-72M4CZ of which the Czech Republic fields 30 or even the older T-72A of which North Macedonia fields 31. By far the most likely source of tanks, however, would be Poland which fields 318 T-72A and M1 variants and 232 of the PT-91 - an indigenous derivative of the T-72 which the Soviet Union transferred the technologies to assemble under license. Poland is by far the most militarised operator of Soviet tanks in NATO, and relies on them considerably less heavily than others due to its purchases of over 120 German Leopard II tanks after the fall of the Warsaw Pact and its more recent orders for M1A2 Abrams tanks from the United States. With a portion of its T-72s set to be phased out of service as the Abrams joints the Polish Army, the country is best positioned to spare armour to donate to Ukraine. Furthermore, Poland has taken among the most hardline positions among EU member states against Russia and such a decision would likely be considered more politically acceptable domestically. The PT-91 in particular, while having common maintenance needs to the T-72, is enhanced with post-1980s technologies including thermal sights which could make it an attractive option for the Ukrainian Army with considerably superior capabilities to its current obsolete inventory. Although far from modern, it is considered around 20-25 years ahead of the T-64B and T-72A in terms of fire controls. Whether such a transfer will be made remains to be seen, but the possibility remains not inconsiderable. 



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