Seized Russian tanks and military vehicles in Ukraine face urgent repair challenge


KHARKIV REGION, Ukraine — When Ukrainian troops saw this abandoned Russian tank on the battlefield, they knew they had found a rare prize.

Armed with a 100mm machine gun and a 30mm cannon, the BMP-3 is one of the few of its kind that the Ukrainian military has captured from the Russians since the invasion began. But about a month ago, after weeks of operation by Ukrainian soldiers, its engine bay and refueling system began to fail.

Since then, the Russian tank has been scrapped and parked at a maintenance point in the Kharkov region of northeastern Ukraine.

Since the start of the war, Ukrainian forces have captured hundreds of what they call “trophies” – Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles. They have become a valuable asset for Kyiv. The brigade working the maintenance point jokingly referred to them as “lease-lease” tanks, a reference to the U.S. World War II program to provide humanitarian aid and military equipment to Britain, the Soviet Union and other Allies.

But many tanks and other vehicles are stuck in hangars like this one, as brigades struggle to find the parts they need to repair them. The unit here, a maintenance battalion of the 14th Independent Mechanized Brigade, has been unable to find parts for the BMP-3.

“Obviously, one should be fighting the enemy, not sitting in a hangar,” said Ruslan, 47, the maintenance battalion commander, who asked not to be named.

In order to find a part to repair a vehicle, the battalion needs to first find an identical match. Unlike earlier models of this type of combat vehicle, the BMP-3 cannot be repaired using parts from similar Ukrainian vehicles.

Another brigade may have matching vehicles, but no system to locate parts, Ruslan said. He suggested that the Armed Forces could benefit from a compatible parts tracking program or database across brigades. “It saves time,” he said. “This will save a lot of resources.”

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A press officer for the 14th Brigade, the only brigade that has fought on all of the country’s major fronts since the Russian invasion began, joked that collecting and hoarding valuables is in Ukrainian nature. It’s not always as easy as claiming the same loot tank or vehicle from another brigade.

In the Donetsk region, Vadym Ustymenko, a member of the tank unit of Ukraine’s 25th Airborne Assault Brigade, said he had replaced tanks “six or seven times” in the past seven months, Because they often need repairs. He now drives a T-80 tank – one of the best tanks in the Ukrainian arsenal.

The 25th Brigade was the first unit to enter the city of Izyum after Russian troops hastily withdrew from the Kharkov region in September, leaving behind a large number of tanks and armored personnel carriers.

“As far as tanks are concerned, there are indeed many, but few are available,” Ustimenko said. “Things that you can start up or that only take a few minutes to work, you can count on with one hand. Those that need repairs but will eventually run are another 30 percent. The last 50 percent is junk and needs a lot of work.”

Another soldier in Ustymenko’s unit said some of the tanks that were in poor condition could be “donors” of needed parts. Since much of Ukrainian weapons can be traced back to the Soviet Union, a 30-year-old tank can be improved with spare parts from captured Russian models that are only 5 years old.

Soldiers in Ustymenko’s unit said they occasionally communicated with other brigades about spare parts. A soldier in the tank unit mentioned that they asked a brigade in the area for some tank ammunition, but were refused.

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While Ukraine can usually repair its own equipment on or near the front lines using available spare parts, failures of Western-supplied equipment often mean it needs to be towed back to NATO facilities in Poland. That could mean taking a vital howitzer out of the field for weeks.

“Most of the weapons coming from the U.S. come from stockpiles, so they are not new,” said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Center. She has been meeting with Western politicians to push Ukraine to receive modern fighter jets and main battle tanks. Shipping the damaged weapons to Poland was “a huge delay and a huge frustration for the Ukrainian military,” Kaleniuk said.

At the field maintenance site in the Kharkov region, members of the maintenance battalion are repairing two Russian tanks and several armed personnel carriers, repairing engines, steering systems and machine gun turrets. One of the first things the unit did when restoring the trophy was repaint it, removing the “Z” symbol from its former Russian owner.

Often, Ruslan said, the most challenging part of repairing a Russian tank is simply identifying the problem. During the Kharkov counteroffensive in Ukraine, many tanks were captured in the area around Kupyansk.

Each brigade has a technical reconnaissance unit dedicated to finding abandoned tanks and equipment on the battlefield and transporting them to repair locations. Tanks and vehicles are easier to find thanks to improved visibility thanks to leaves falling from the trees.

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But winter also creates harsher conditions for tanks and equipment, causing more wear and tear.

Continued power outages create additional obstacles. The maintenance point suffered an almost daily power outage, delaying the team’s work. Even a generator isn’t enough to power all the tools they need to repair equipment. Ruslan said this was part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goals.

“The Russians do it for a reason,” he said.

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