KYIV, Ukraine — It was an early and hilarious symbol of underdog resistance. Ukrainian tractors dubbed the “John Deere Brigade” were shown on social media quickly hauling abandoned Russian military equipment, from tanks to self-propelled artillery systems to complex air defense platforms worth billions of dollars. Western predictions that Ukraine would fall to its invaders within three days proved irresponsible. Europe’s breadbasket may punch above its weight. And now he was in the repo business.
Around the time of the Battle of Kiev, captured Russian vehicles were typically just given a quick coat of paint and decorated with Ukrainian flags before being sent back to fight their former owners. But what was first an organic and ad hoc tractor effort by Ukrainian farmers has turned into a more organized and methodical one, as the Ukrainian military has pushed largely captured Russian weaponry into frontline service. And since Ukraine recaptured almost all of Kharkiv district last week, “MacGyver” and new vehicles have arrived for reuse.
After Ukraine’s successful Kharkiv offensive last week, a fleet of Russian armored vehicles was released onto the battlefield, with Russian troops attempting to fend off a Ukrainian advance. Footage uploaded to social media by the victorious Ukrainian army showed rows of BMP infantry fighting vehicles, neatly parked in the liberated city of Izium, in close quarters, while T-80U tanks from Russia’s elite 4th Guards Tank Regiment were abandoned in one location. Maintenance stations, in various states of repair.
According to independent monitor Oryx, which uses publicly available footage to visually confirm the loss of Russian and Ukrainian equipment, the Ukrainians have captured at least 1,841 pieces of heavy Russian military equipment since the start of the war, including 356 tanks, 606 armored fighting vehicles, and 363 trucks and jeeps. . Oryx only includes devices that have been visually confirmed, the true total is likely much higher.
“In the early days of the war, a lot of Russian vehicles were completely out of gas and abandoned in good condition,” said Yuri Matsarskyi, a soldier in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces (TDF), the nation’s military reserve force. “It has been decreasing in the last few months. But after Kharkiv, it has been picked up again. “
The Ukrainians are repainting these captured vehicles in their now-familiar digital camouflage. They are also upgrading and improving them. Caught the “Tornado-U” truck An additional Browning M2 heavy machine gun mounted on the cab was provided, while the BTR-82A was an armored personnel carrier. Upgraded with additional armor, thermal-imaging visionAnd Elon Musk’s Starlink Satellite Internet Platform.
“Many of the vehicles we captured are MT-LBs,” Pavlo Kazarin, another soldier in the TDF and a well-known journalist before the war, told Yahoo News, referring to the versatile Russian armored vehicle, which is often used as an armored personnel carrier. Or an artillery tractor. “At least one of these has been upgraded with added weapons such as a ZSU-2 23 anti-aircraft autocannon.”
In fact, one TDF brigade has an entire garage of Russian armored vehicles, due to what Matsarsky describes as a “special tactic” to immobilize Russian vehicles and force their crews to abandon them. “A group of TDF soldiers used light mortars to fire shells at a Russian BTR armored personnel carrier that took a routine patrol route, deliberately bursting the vehicle’s tires and forcing the crew to abandon it.”
“Many of the Russian vehicles left behind are not that badly damaged,” Matsersky said. “The Russians don’t have the motivation or discipline to repair them.” Despite Russia’s inability to match the latest Western advances in drone technology or precision-guided weapons, building rugged heavy trucks has always historically worked well.
And as many Ukrainians were pressed into military service as a result of the war, they initially had to rely on civilian cars for transportation. Generally, they had limited off-road capabilities and were highly vulnerable to Russian attack due to their lack of armor. One of Matsarsky’s commanders went through three vehicles in one month due to shooting.
Thanks to what Ukrainians have nicknamed “Russian Lend Lease,” more and more of Kiev’s soldiers are now walking around with bullet- and artillery-proof plating. This translates not only into fewer casualties but also into greater operational sustainability on the battlefield. Matsarsky joked that it is often easier to steal a Russian armored vehicle for use by the TDF than to exchange or wrangle it with other units of the Ukrainian military for official deployment.
For example, the “Tornado-U,” one of Russia’s latest heavy military trucks, and the models the Ukrainians have taken over, have an armored cab, a 440-horsepower engine, and a 6×6 chassis. The Tornado-U can also easily go off-road and carry towed weapons, such as howitzers or anti-tank guns.
Ukrainians are also taking other types of Russian kit. A BM-21 “Grad” multiple launch rocket system was found beyond effective repair, and so the Ukrainians salvaged the rocket-launcher tube and mounted it on the back of a pickup truck. Although this is old technology (Grad rockets are not that different from the “Katyusha” rockets used by the Soviet military in World War II), ammunition for such systems is still relatively plentiful and the rockets remain lethal.
However, Ukrainian soldiers insist that renewed Russian material is no substitute for continued support from their Western partners.
Russian guns and tanks show a lot of wear and tear. The barrels are worn and the equipment is very old, 30 or 40 years old and sometimes even older.
“Imagine the wonders we can do with the new Abrams tank,” Matserski said.