russian tanks
© Sputnik / Ramil Sitdikov
2023 will be remembered as the year that the fearsome reputation of NATO's pricey, high-tech weaponry and military equipment came crashing down after running into the force of Russian arms. Sputnik asked five leading Russian and US military experts for their takes on the top five Russian weapons of the outgoing year.

The end of the Cold War brought with it the pinnacle of Pentagon hubris, with conflicts in Iraq in 1991, Bosnia and Kosovo in 1995 and 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq again in 2003 and Libya in 2011 seemingly proving the superiority of the weapons designs the United States and its allies developed in the 1980s to fight the Soviets in a World War III scenario that never arrived.

NATO defense analysts chalked down their conventional victories to superior technology and quality of their weapons, figuring that if an Abrams or Challenger 2 tank could single-handedly destroy dozens of Iraq's Soviet-era T-72 tanks with near-impunity and suffer almost no losses, that meant there was something right about Western tank designs, and something wrong with the Soviet (and by translation Russian) design philosophies. The same logic was applied across the board, from armor to aircraft to air defenses and virtually everything in between.

In 2023, the performance of Ukraine's Western-armed and trained forces against heavily entrenched Russian positions in Zaporozhye, Kherson and the Donbass shattered the myth of the superiority of NATO arms in high-intensity warfare against an actual peer competitor. Leopards, Challengers, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and other Western armored equipment burned just as easily as their Soviet-era Ukrainian counterparts.

Russia's Grad, Uragan and Smerch multiple launch rocket artillery proved just as effective as Ukraine's US-gifted HIMARS. NATO-standard tactical cruise missiles tended to prove no match for Russia's Tor, Pantsir, S-300 and S-400-equipped layered air and missile defense networks.

In November, with Ukraine's counteroffensive at a standstill and tens of thousands of soldiers killed, Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny admitted that the conflict had reached a "stalemate." NATO's equipment proved insufficient, and its advice erroneous, the general said. "If you look at NATO's textbooks and at the maths which we did, four months should have been enough time for us to have reached Crimea, to have fought in Crimea, to return from Crimea and to have gone back in and out again," Zaluzhny complained.

Leopard 2 and Bradley
© Russian Defense MinistryLeopard 2 and Bradley pictured among destroyed and damaged Ukrainian vehicles.
Top Five Russian Weapons of 2023

So, which Russian battlefield, tactical and strategic weapons systems defined the outgoing year? Sputnik asked leading military experts for their takes.

#5: Tor-M2 Missile System

Although Russia ultimately proved able to maintain air superiority over Ukraine, doing so was never a guarantee. While NATO countries delayed the delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Kiev, they did not hesitate to stock up Ukraine's Air Force up with dozens of Soviet-standard aircraft that Ukrainian pilots are familiar with, including MiG-29 and Su-27 fighter jets, Mi-24 helicopter gunships, and Mi-8 transport helicopters. What's more, NATO deliveries included thousands of reconnaissance and strike drones, from tiny Black Hornet Nanos, to plane-sized Bayraktar TB2 strike drones, Malloy Aeronautics T150 eVTOL heavy quadrocopter drones, Switchblade kamikaze UAVs and Phoenix Ghost loitering munitions. As far as long-range strike systems go, the alliance delivered Storm Shadow and SCALP EG low-observable cruise missiles, GPS and inertial navigation system-assisted GMLRS rockets and ATACMS missiles, and other sophisticated, hard to detect and defend against munitions.

Given the multifaceted threats coming from Ukraine's NATO-boosted air, missile and drone power, effective Russian air, drone and missile defenses meant the difference between successful ground deterrence and the potential collapse of the front.

That's why Alexei Leonkov, a leading Russian military analyst, listed the Tor missile system as one of his personal top Russian weapons of 2023.
"The Tor-M2 air defense system has distinguished itself with its excellent work in shooting down enemy UAVs. Among the statistics of downed enemy drones updated daily by Russia's Defense Ministry, two thirds have been destroyed by this complex. In other words, this system has proven itself and confirmed all of its declared characteristics, [showing itself capable] of shooting down any type of drone, both directly on the front and in zones adjacent to it," Leonkov told Sputnik.
Tor-M2 Missile System
Leonkov also gave honorable mention to Russian counter-battery and electronic warfare systems, which like the Tor-M2 and other air and missile defense weapons went a long way in preventing Ukrainian forces from breaking through Russian lines during their counteroffensive this year.
"The modernized Zoopark counterbattery radar stations have been demonstrated. New, longer-range counter-battery stations also made an appearance, which, in conjunction with the new Tornado-S MLRS made it possible to effectively introduce counter-battery fire and suppress enemy artillery systems, as well as multiple rocket systems like the high-precision HIMARS," Leonkov said.
"Finally, there are the electronic warfare systems, specifically those that began to be installed directly as protection for our armored vehicles, which began to effectively combat the new phenomenon of FPV drones," the military observer added.

#4: T-90

On the plains of Zaporozhye and Kherson, Russian armor, consisting of upgraded variants of late second and third generation tank designs including the T-72, T-80 and T-90 proved more than a match for Ukraine's NATO-made main battle tanks, assisting fixed defenses in preventing enemy armored breakthroughs.

Here, the T-90 Proryv, the latest word in Russian tank design, deserves special mention. "At the moment, I believe this is the best tank in the world," Rustem Klupov, a former Soviet and Russian military intelligence officer, Hero of Russia, reserve colonel and veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, told Sputnik.
"In terms of characteristics, in terms of armament, and in terms of performance, and because the tankers who fight using this tank speak very highly of it," Klupov said, when asked why the T-90 belongs in the top five.
"Its firepower consists of a 125-mm cannon that can fire guided missiles through its barrel. Furthermore, the tank's active protection system ensures survivability. It's unpretentious, maneuverable, and low-to-the ground, enabling it to remain invisible to the enemy on the battlefield until the last moment," the retired officer added.
T-90 Proryv Tank
#3: Lancet

Sergei Lipovoy, a Hero of Russia military pilot who fought in Afghanistan, the Civil War in Tajikistan, and the First and Second Chechen Wars, and who now serves as chairman of the Officers of Russia veterans group, is convinced that drones in general and the Lancet in particular belong at the very top of the list of significant Russian weapons of 2023.
"The number one thing that impressed me is drones, both helicopter and airplane-style, including the Lancet, which has proven itself to be excellent, the Geran, as well as small quadcopter-type UAVs which have been assembled practically in trench shelters. These include observation and kamikaze drones. This also includes so-called strike drones capable of dropping any ammunition," Lipovoy told Sputnik.
Klupov agrees, citing the Lancet as a standout tactical weapon.
"Lancets began to be exploited before 2023, but it was this year that we realized that we had moved into a new domain of warfare. This is a DRONE war, and, accordingly, loitering munitions, a combination of reconnaissance and destructive capability, are steps forward in this direction. The Lancet, which can be hit targets 40-50 km away, depending on weather conditions, is a very powerful and accurate weapon system. It combines accuracy, range and the power of a destructive charge. Depending on its mission, it can be equipped with a high-explosive fragmentation warhead. And this 'tandem' warhead is used against armored targets," Klupov said.
The Lancet's developers have created several modifications of the strike drone over the past year-and-a-half, with its base models featuring a distinctive x-wing design. The latest variant, the Z-53, features a foldout frontal wing design, and can fly in swarms and coordinate autonomously in the selection of targets using the principle of network-centric warfare. Their range has been extended to 60-70 km.

Much has been said and written about the significance of drone warfare in the Ukrainian conflict. Drone capabilities proved one of Russia's weak spots through much of 2022, with the defense industry unable to field sufficient numbers of reconnaissance and strike drones to have a decisive impact in fighting. That changed in 2023, with Russia not only ramping up the production of designs which existed before the crisis escalated, but creating new UAVs like the Lancet seemingly out of nowhere and rapidly deploying them to the front, where they have proven their effectiveness ever since.

"From an American perspective, you know we're pretty proud of our drone technology and capability," former DoD analyst and retired US Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski told Sputnik. "We've been putting quite a bit of investment into drone technologies, as have other countries. But the drones that the Russians have've got long-range ones, big ones, little ones, integrated and of course controllable using the battlefield space knowledge that they're getting."
"This is newly developed stuff in the last decade, pretty much," Kwiatkowski said, noting that in the war in Syria, the US military has been "bumping up against some of this [Russian drone] technology" and being "very impressed with it."
Russian Lancet drone
#2: Ka-52

Western observers have cited effective air support as a key factor behind the success of Russia's defensive operations during the Ukrainian army's summer counteroffensive, pointing to the effectiveness of the Kamov Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopter in particular in searching out, homing in on and targeting everything from armored vehicles and tanks to strongholds.

In late July, realizing that something was amiss in Ukraine's counteroffensive, a British military intelligence report characterized the Ka-52 as "one of the single most influential Russian weapons systems" in the Zaporozhye section of the front. Paired with the new LMUR air-to-surface missiles, which have a 15 km firing range, the Ka-52s operated well outside the range of most of Ukraine's NATO-provided short-range air defense equipment, including Stinger MANPADs to Gepard Flakpanzers.

The Ka-52 "has huge capability and it has those counter-rotating blades on the top...It's actually very innovative," Kwiatkowski said, characterizing the Ka-52 as her number one pick among Russia's top five weapons of 2023.
As for its LMUR missiles, "they can be launched from a helicopter and then guided. They're not laser-guided, but guided through thermal and satellite navigation. So that's something that can get your helicopter to safety. You can monitor what's happening. What it implies is that the Russian [military], in any case where they're using these, has battlefield knowledge integration and are basically able to do what they need to do. They can communicate. They can target. They can protect the helicopter and the [pilots] and hit the targets they're needing to hit and destroy them," Kwiatkowski said.
Kamov Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopter
Klupov, for his part, was impressed by the operations of Russia's frontline Army aviation in general, including the Ka-52 and the Mi-28, which are often used in tandem.
"Working together, these helicopters make use of the qualities of both: the striking power of the Mi-28 [which can also be equipped with LMURs, ed.] and the protective characteristics of the Ka-28. Combining these helicopters into a single strike unit allows for their most effective use. And like the T-90 so far as tanks go, these aircraft have become the best attack helicopters in the world today. The Long Bow and the Apache can no longer compare with these helicopters in terms of their combat qualities," the retired officer said.
#1: Kinzhal

Whether talking about the Tor, the T-90, the Lancet or the Ka-52, all of these are tactical weapons, situated directly on the battlefield and used against enemy forces amassed there. That does not apply to the Kinzhal - the first-in-the-world hypersonic air-launched missile carried by customized MiG-31 interceptors and Su-34 fighter-bombers which can accelerate to speeds up to Mach 10 and strike targets up to 2,000 km away with a 500 kg conventional or a 5-50 kiloton nuclear warhead.

Russia has used conventional Kinzhals extensively in Ukraine, targeting enemy air defenses, arms depots, airfields, energy infrastructure, and other objects.

Alexei Leonkov, the military analyst, listed the Kinzhal as another of his top weapons of the special military operation.
"The Kinzhal not only handled the task of destroying protected objects, but excelled in the destruction of the US Patriot anti-aircraft missile system. This is a big plus, because until recently there was a myth that the Patriot was the most advanced American-made air defense system and that it could destroy any targets," Leonkov said.
Klupov agreed. "The power, accuracy and speed of this missile is not only impressive, but leaves any countermeasures and defenses" designed to stop it "in the dust...Not a single air defense or missile defense system can shoot it down," he said.
"The most terrifying destructive effect of this missile, especially in concrete-piercing applications, is its ability to penetrate deep into the ground...Several times these missiles were used against control centers, anti-aircraft missile systems, and other targets. Among strategic weapons, Kinzhal missiles are number one," the veteran retired military intelligence officer stressed.
Kinzhal hypersonic missile
Michael Maloof, a former senior security policy analyst from the Office of the US Secretary of Defense, lists Russia's hypersonic capabilities in general, and the Kinzhal in particular, as the most significant Russian arms of 2023.

"The Kinzhal [flies at] Mach 10. It's got a 2,000 km range and it could be launched from bombers and interceptors," Maloof told Sputnik. "Four of them were thrown at the Ukrainians recently, along with other drones and what have you. Not one of those Kinzhals was even noticed or hit or intercepted," he recalled.
The United States "has no defense" against hypersonic missiles but is "working on it," Maloof emphasized. "Many systems have failed. The United States has not yet achieved development of its own hypersonic systems. It's trying. This makes any missile defense system that either the United States or Europe have penetrable and obsolete. Especially if any of these missiles, hypersonics, are launched in a swarm approach - that is, multiple missiles at once. There's absolutely no defense. And you can have the most elaborate anti-ballistic missile system in the world, but because of maneuverability and approach in how they're launched, it makes it impossible [to defeat hypersonics]. And if all of them are deployed at once in a swarm approach, and if armed with nukes (and many of them are capable of being armed with nuclear weapons) it would be devastating."
Maloof also pointed out that Russia only resumed work on its hypersonic program after the US decided to quit the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, effectively bringing "this problem on itself, in effect."

Besides the Kinzhal, Maloof mentioned the Zircon - a hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile that can be launched from surface warships or subs at targets 1,000 km away. "It's made our twelve carrier strikes groups virtually obsolete as a result. If this Zircon is loaded on submarines, it can really alter the course of human events very, very rapidly," the observer somberly noted.

Honorable Mention: Shkval Torpedo

Maloof saw fit to mention another of Russia's weapons that "no one" really seems to talk about, and which hasn't taken part in the conflict in Ukraine.

"It's not a strategic weapon. It's a tactical weapon. But it's an extraordinary capability that Russia has developed, which has not been matched by the United States to this day, nor is there any defense for it. And that's the VA-111 Shkval. What is it? It's a supercavitating torpedo capable of [traveling] 370 km [per hour, or over 200 knots]."

In fluid mechanics, supercavitation refers to the use of small-vapor-filled cavities in liquid surrounding a solid object to reduce the friction drag on a submerged object, enabling high-speed travel underwater.

VA-111 Shkval
VA-111 Shkval at an exhibition.
The Shkval is a legacy Russian naval weapon, first introduced in the 1970s and upgraded several times since then.

"370 kilometers is approximately 230 miles an hour. There's no defense to that. And on top of that, their latest versions are maneuverable rather than [traveling in] a straight line," Maloof said, characterizing the torpedo as an effective "carrier killer."