In one of the most dramatic scenes of a war that has produced thousands of them, a new video shows a confrontation between a Ukrainian T-64BV tank and a Russian T-90S almost at point-blank range. (Others identify the Russian as a T-72B3). In the video, widely shared on social media, the seemingly vastly inferior T-64 emerges victorious, apparently with the help of clever but cheap technology.

A double row of trees separates the two vehicles, which, taking the length of the T-90S as a reference, are just under 30 meters apart. That would be an incredibly short distance in any tank battle since World War II and even more so on the modern battlefield, where analysts talk of the need for higher-velocity guns to increase the range of engagements to five kilometers or more.

The T-64BV and T-90S are fundamentally similar tanks derived from Soviet-era designs, with the major difference being that the T-64 is a second-generation design and the T-90 is the third generation that replaced it. The last T-64 was built in 1987, although the Ukrainian T-64BVs have been somewhat modernized. The T-90S was originally developed for export but was later adopted by the Russian military and has better armor, a more advanced targeting system and a more powerful engine than the T-64BV.

Both tanks have similar 125mm 2A46M guns, and in a tank-to-tank engagement, they would use armor-piercing fin-stabilized expendable sabot (APFSDS) ammunition. The Russians may use a later version that gives them greater accuracy and penetration at long ranges, but this would be irrelevant at pistol ranges. Both tanks are easily capable of destroying the other at this distance.

The Ukrainian tank fires the first vital shot just as the Russian tank begins to move, achieving an impact that sends debris flying, although much of this may have been due to the T-90S’s Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor; It is supposed to be effective against kinetic projectiles, but its usefulness at close range is doubtful. A Russian crew member appears to jump from the vehicle at 0:20, just before the Ukrainians fire again, creating more flying debris and leaving the T-90S smoking as the T-64 retreats.


The view changes to a different angle, but immediately after the first section judging by the drifting smoke, and the T-64 fires again. This time an internal explosion destroys the T-90S. When an APFSDS projectile pierces armor, it produces a shower of high-velocity, red-hot metal fragments that rip through the interior like a gigantic shotgun blast. The resulting fireball explodes the ammunition and fuel.

It is striking that, throughout the encounter, the Russian tank’s cannon is pointed along the tree line; They had no idea there was an enemy tank on the other side, while the Ukrainians seem to know exactly where the Russian tank is. Two Ukrainian drones recorded the video, and it is possible that others were observing the same action. It is reasonable to assume that the drone operators informed the tank crew of the Russian’s location and movement, probably through software designed for this purpose.

The Ukrainian Delta situational awareness system is a network that processes data from drones, satellites, sensors and other sources and feeds it into a soldier’s real-time mapping display on a commercial tablet. Delta is a textbook example of the network-centric warfare that other nations have struggled to build for decades; It appears extremely effective and has performed well and successfully interfaced with NATO systems in exercises. Delta has changed the game in Ukraine, allowing its forces to see and attack targets that were not in sight.

Delta is only as good as the data available, which is why small consumer drones have been so important in this war. Last year, a Russian regional government complained that troops on the front lines were “blind kittens” without quadcopters, at the mercy of Ukrainian forces who could see them without being seen. Ukraine has supplied frontline troops with thousands of small Mavic-type quadcopters and aims to have 200,000 of them on the ground this year. Russia has not been left behind.

The combination of drones and smart software is generally most effective at long range, and a Ukrainian gunner has claimed the longest-range tank-on-tank kill ever recorded, launching shells into a Russian tank six miles away and out of sight. The gunner needed twenty shots, but it was an unequal duel.

This latest encounter highlights the bravery and determination of a Ukrainian tank crew facing a superior adversary. But it also shows that the side that does not adopt new technologies loses. The Leopard, Abrams and Challengers are excellent tanks. Still, future tank developers should remember that expensive next-generation vehicles with slightly improved armor, guns and engines will still be easily destroyed by intelligent adversaries with tanks—inferiors who have invested in cheap tablets, drones and open-source software.

UPDATE: The tank action occurred sometime in 2022, and some images of the same encounter were posted on Twitter last October. The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine published the current version of the video on September 20, 2023.

David Hambling