By Joseph Dempsey, Research Analyst, Defence and Military Analysis Programme

Several recent reports have identified Russia as the source of Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) and other heavy equipment operated by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, a suggestion persistently denied by Moscow. The apparent sudden and steady flow of MBTs into separatist hands since June 2014 coupled with a recently observed diversity of MBTs suggests some reliance on an external source. The Soviet-era MBTs operated by the separatists have until now represented those that could have been potentially acquired internally within Ukraine, providing a degree of plausible deniability to any suspected third-party supplier. The most recent separatist MBT variant observed, however, is assessed to have been operated only by the Russian Army.

Recently published online footage, reportedly taken on 26 August in Sverdlovsk, Luhansk Oblast, in eastern Ukraine, shows a convoy of military vehicles. Whilst date and location are unconfirmed, the operator of the convoy is apparent: flags associated with the separatist movement are clearly displayed and some vehicles feature bright green areas, a common feature of separatist armour. (Though initially introduced to conceal markings on captured vehicles, the green paint can be used in engagements to distinguish separatist vehicles from those of similarly equipped Ukrainian government forces. Ukrainian forces have adopted white bands for similar identification purposes.)

The mixed convoy includes at least three T-72B1 MBTs but it is the appearance (01:40–01:53) of a lone, more modern T-72 variant that is of particular significance. This variant, distinguished by the prominent Kontakt-5 Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) arrangement on the turret front, is commonly referred to by Western sources as the T-72BM. It is operated by the Russian Army in large numbers, but crucially it is not known to have been exported or operated outside of Russia. The presence of this variant in Ukraine therefore strongly supports the contention that Russia is supplying arms to separatist forces.

The first separatist MBTs observed were identified as T-64BV, a variant constituting the majority of the Ukrainian army MBT fleet. It was therefore initially assumed that they, like separatist armoured vehicles before, had been captured in engagements with government forces or through access to known army depots within contested areas. However, on 14 June NATO published strong evidence that these MBTs had been supplied by Russia. Although the T-64BV was withdrawn from Russian active service, the IISS assesses that a significant quantity remains in storage. It is therefore feasible that a number of T-64BV, surplus to current Russian requirements, could have been reactivated and supplied to separatist forces. IISS analysts estimate that between 12 June and 16 July over 40 T-64BV were acquired by separatists.

In recent weeks, increasing evidence of other MBT types and variants in separatist operation has been observed, including further T-64 variants, multiple T-72B1s and even limited evidence of access to a T-80 variant. Unlike the T-64BV these MBTs are not believed to be in current Ukrainian service, but still exist within country, either in storage or undergoing refurbishment for export purposes.  Similarly these MBTs exist in Russian storage facilities, and in the case of the T-72B1 also in current active Russian Army service.

The introduction of the T-72BM variant provides the separatists with a more advanced platform than the previous MBTs observed, and if employed effectively in numbers represents a greater threat to Ukrainian government armour in the region. However, to take full advantage of its attributes requires personnel with sufficient training and experience to effectively maintain and operate its systems.


A panel, including former US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, will discuss 'The International System and the Ukraine Crisis' in the first plenary session of the 2014 IISS Global Strategic Review

The annual IISS members conference will  be held in Oslo from Friday 19 to Sunday 21 September at the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel. The theme will be 'Geopolitical Risks and Geo-economic Opportunities.'

GSR Outline Agenda

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