In any war, certain weapons come to symbolize one side in the fighting, specific tactics or political factors. In that spirit, a specific tank has become the icon of Russia’s secret war in Ukraine.
On June 3, 2016, Ukrainian blogger “sled_vzayt” posted a batch of evidence showing advanced T-72B3 tanks — as well as other armored vehicles and heavy weapons — and their Russian crews in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region and right across the border in Russia.
While the post uses numerous photographs to identify specific tanks, the vehicles themselves offer some of the clearest proof that the Kremlin’s troops are actively supporting rebel forces in Ukraine.
“In the Ukraine conflict, many have scoured the military equipment sightings on social media to find evidence of Russian involvement,” Veli-Pekka Kivimäki, a Finnish doctoral student and open-source intelligence expert, wrote in a piece for the investigative Website Bellingcat on May 28, 2016.
“The modernized T-72B3 main battle tank has been an example of military equipment that is out of place in a conflict where Russian government actively denies military involvement.”
After seizing Crimea from Kiev in March 2014, Moscow quickly moved to support separatist rebels in Donbass. Despite the Kremlin repeatedly denying their presence in disputed areas, Russian “volunteers” had flowed over the border to help, bringing heavy weapons — such as T-72B3 tanks — with them.
“There is very clear evidence and proof that Russia … has transferred more than 1,000 pieces of Russian military equipment into Ukraine, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, heavy artillery pieces and other military vehicles,” U.S. Air Force general Philip Breedlove, the Pentagon’s top office in Europe, told reporters on Feb. 25, 2015.
“These have been used on the front lines against Ukrainian forces,” Breedlove said.
The general did not specify any particular type of military hardware in his comments. Moscow deflected these and other claims by, in part, pointing out that Russian and Ukrainian forces use very similar gear.
After still unidentified troops shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine’s Donetsk province on July 17, 2014, the Kremlin tried shifting blame to Kiev by arguing over the origin of the errant missile.
In October 2015, the Dutch Safety Board released a report concluding that a Buk launcher firing a 9M38M1 surface-to-air missile, which both Russia and Ukraine own, was the weapon in question.
But there’s no doubt that Moscow’s tankers have brought T-72B3 tanks to the Ukrainian battlefield. Russian tank-maker Uralvagonzavod cooked up that vehicle type specifically for the Kremlin’s armored units back in 2010. Five years later, Moscow was still the only country to put the type into service.
Externally very similar to the original B model, the advanced B3 variant doesn’t necessarily look like anything special. The Soviet army got its first T-72Bs in 1988.
Over the next two decades, Soviet and then Russian weaponeers continued to upgrade the design. Engineers added extra protection in the form of explosive reactive armor — which detonates to absorb the destructive power of incoming shells and missiles — along with new sensors and better engines.
Another result was the newer T-90, originally named the T-72BU, which had an even more powerful motor, improved armor and new equipment to help keep the 125-millimeter main gun on target. The Russian army started receiving these tanks two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Without funds to buy an entirely new fleet of tanks, Moscow had to keep hundreds of T-72s in service. So the Kremlin accepted Uralvagonzavod’s plan to bring the vehicles up to date.
The process is a “frame off” overhaul that produces what “is essentially a new tank,” the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office explained in the February edition of OE Watch. In many respects, the T-72B3 is better than the T-90.
While the two tanks share the same gun, the B3 has newer sensors, radios and other gear. An improved firefighting system helps protect the crew if the tank gets hit.
On top of this, the newest T-72 has a all new powerpack with nearly 300 extra horsepower compared to the motor in the T-90. With the additional power, the tank can reach a top speed of more than 40 miles per hour on paved roads and cover 300 miles without the need to refuel.
With these features and visual similarities to Ukrainian types, it’s hardly surprising Russia decided to send the T-72B3s, along with older T-64s, into Ukraine. Once there, the heavily-armored beasts gave rebel factions much-needed firepower to stabilize their front lines and go on the offensive.
Between the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, the quality of Kiev’s military had declined dramatically. The armored thrust put Ukrainian forces on the defensive.
While tanks — along with heavy artillery — became key elements of separatist attacks in general, armor was especially valuable during the rebel assault on Donetsk International Airport. After being ejected once by government troops, rebels launched a fresh assault in October 2014.
Finding the Ukrainian troops particularly difficult to drive out of the main terminal, the rebels and their Russian supporters nicknamed these defenders “cyborgs.” After months of fighting, the separatists only managed claimed victory after practically destroying the terminal building and control tower with artillery fire and tank shells.
After a number of attempts in late January 2015, Kiev’s soldiers proved unable to unseat the rebel contingent and retreated from the area. At the time, it was still clear if Russian or rebel tankers were driving the T-72s involved in the battle.
But the next month, independent British journalist Graham Phillips released video — seen below — from a Kremlin-sanctioned trip to the Donbass. A column of T-72B3s was clearly visible in the background as the pro-Russia Phillips made his report.
Kivimäki and other quickly looked to collect other evidence of the Kremlin’s involvement in the fighting. As the Russian army includes a fair number of young conscripts with access to the Internet, searches have turned up new photographic proof.
“Social media is a critical source of information regarding movements of military equipment in Ukraine and in the vicinity of the Ukrainian border with Russia,” researchers wrote in the 2015 Atlantic Council report Hiding in Plain Sight: Putin’s War in Ukraine.
“Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine and Ukrainian and Russian civilians on both sides of the war are posting photographs and videos of convoys, equipment and themselves on the Internet.”
Unable to look inside the tanks, Kivimäki wrote in his background for Bellingcat that a unique thermal sight is among the best ways to spot a T-72B3. Unfortunately, a characteristic wind sensor and gunner’s sight aren’t enough to differentiate the vehicles from earlier B models.
Elsewhere, researchers — and no doubt Pentagon and other U.S. government intelligence analysts — have been able to link specific unit markings and graffiti to individual tanks. As sled_vzayt found earlier in June, Moscow’s soldiers don’t always remove these distinct marks even after they return to their bases in Russia.
“No one has presented real proof of the presence of the Russian armed forces in the Ukraine,” the Russian ministry of defense claimed in a statement in response to Bellingcat’s reporting on the MH17 incident on March 7, 2016. “Everyone can assure himself by spending some time in the Internet.”
But in spite of these claims, the T-72B3s and their Russian tankers have been instrumental in maintaining the Ukrainian stalemate and keeping the country’s separatist regions out of Kiev’s grasp.
This piece first appeared in WarIsBoring here.
Image: Flicrk/Creative Commons.