Following reports that the first Russian T-90M battle tanks had been deployed to Ukraine in the final week of April, the first footage emerged on May 4 showing that at least one of the vehicles had been left inoperational after engaging in combat in the theatre. The T-90M is considered the most capable fully operational battle tank in the Russian inventory, with capabilities well over a decade ahead of platforms previously deployed to Ukraine such as the T-72B3 or T-90A. With only around 100 in service its deployment was seen to signify that Russia was escalating its war effort in certain areas of the battlefield. The tank began to join the Army only in early 2020, and while its loss has been widely cited by Western sources as an indication that the design is ineffective, it remains uncertain whether any more than the one tank have been lost or under what circumstances.
The T-90M is prized for its high survivability relative to older designs, and benefits from new variants of the Relikt explosive reactive armour and the Afghanit active protection system, a more powerful engine, extra protection to isolate internally stored munitions, and much more advanced base armour. Images do not give a strong indication of whether the tank’s crew survived, but it remains a significant possibility with the vehicle appearing relatively intact.
The Russian Army reportedly intends to eventually field around 600 T-90M tanks, upgrading 400 older T-90As to this standard while building up to 200 more. The tank’s performance in Ukraine, and those of older vehicles such as the T-72B3, could well affect these plans. It could either accelerate the rate of T-90M acquisitions or cut planned numbers in favour of either less tanks in the Russian Army or of more advanced T-14 tanks. While the T-90M is a descendant of the T-64 design from the 1960s, albeit very heavily evolved and improved, the T-14 is not based on from any prior production tank and represents a clean sheet design – albeit one far more costly than the T-90. Whether the T-90M will prove successful in Ukraine thus remains to be seen, particularly as the circumstances of the single confirmed loss remain unknown.