A video showing a column of armed vehicles and a particular T-72 tank has been used by Western media to support the Ukrainian nationalist narrative that the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is primarily between Russia and Ukraine, rather than a domestic conflict. Analysis of the evidence suggests the tank is not necessarily a Russian supplied (let alone operated) tank as has been widely reported.
The video in question was published to at least two online locations on 26 August – Sputnik TV and 1st Video Channel (the original source is unknown). It has been possible to confirm that the location of the video is overlooking a roundabout in Sverdlovsk in Eastern Ukraine. The video can be seen here:
According to an article by Joseph Dempsey, an intelligence analyst who joined the International Institute of Strategic Studies in March this year this 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.”
Dempsey’s report was mirrored by Jonathan Marcus, BBC diplomatic correspondent, and was a lead item on BBC News, cementing the “Russian invasion” narrative previously established by journalists Shaun Walker and Roland Oliphant, who had earlier claimed to have “seen” a convoy of Russian vehicles crossing an unmarked section of the Ukraine-Russia border in the pitch black at a location they have been unwilling to pinpoint.
According to an article on the BBC site by Marcus,
“Experts at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London have told the BBC that they have identified a Russian tank in a separatist column in eastern Ukraine that they say could only have come from across the border in Russia.”
Marcus channels Dempsey’s analysis saying, “It is the appearance of a lone, more modern T-72 variant (shown below) that is of particular significance.
This variant, distinguished by the prominent Kontakt-5 Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) arrangement – the boxes 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. “
So does this “proof” stand up to scrutiny?
Here are a few facts which throw light on the actual situation:
1.Ukraine is estimated to have inherited roughly a third of the military equipment of the Soviet Union when it collapsed in 1991.
2.This inheritance included a large number of T-72s as these were based on Ukrainian territory at the time.
3. Although Ukraine decided to standardise its tank fleet around the T-64 (generally reckoned to be a superior tank), Ukraine has continuously upgraded and sold the legacy stocks of its T-72s, largely to African countries.
4. Ukraine’s armaments industry was strongly integrated with Russia’s up until the current President ordered a separation in June.
5. It is possible that Dempsey was confused between the NATO-designation of T72BM from the late 1980s, which refers to a tank with Kontakt 5 armour, and the post-2006 T72BM which has a different form of armour but which is reckoned not to have been “exported or operated outside of Russia.”
In any case, the tank shown in the video may well have been in storage in Ukraine as seems to be implicitly accepted by Dempsey in a subsequent tweet:
It is therefore possible that the tank was taken out of storage, rather than provided by Russia. Ukraine is losing a lot of armoured vehicles in its battles in the East and Ukraine’s factories are geared up to refurbish and maintain these vehicles. On the other hand, the rebels have demonstrated a willingness to bring tanks back into operation and to put those they capture as trophies into use immediately.