Ukrainians are riding tanks captured from an elite Russian unit into battle in Bakhmut, but their new gear may not last long

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Ukranian forces fire at Russian positions using a captured T-80 tank.
Ukrainian troops fire a captured Russian T-80 tank at Russian positions in the Donetsk region on November 22.AP Photo/LIBKOS
  • Ukrainian troops have repurposed an array of gear that Russian forces have left on the battlefield.

  • That includes T-80 tanks captured from the 1st Guards Tank Army, an elite Russian armored unit.

  • But Russian tanks are designed for Russian forces, and Ukraine might get limited use out of them.

There is poetic justice in the idea that a country under attack is using its adversary's weapons against it.

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No wonder Western observers have been thrilled by reports of Ukrainian forces capturing hundreds of Russian tanks and turning them against the invaders. No doubt Western governments were happy, too; the more weapons Ukraine captures for itself, the fewer Western countries may have to send from their own stocks.

Michael Kofman, the director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, said that the gear Ukraine is repurposing includes tanks that were captured from Russia's elite 1st Guards Tank Army and sent back into Bakhmut, the site of Ukraine and Russia's deadliest fighting.

Kofman spoke at a March 13 event hosted by the Carnegie Endowment and described a recent trip to Bakhmut, where he said that he saw "a reinforcing tank platoon coming in from the Ukrainian side which was entirely made up of Russian T-80s that they had captured from 1st Guards Tank Army at Izyum."

Russian soldiers sitting on a T-80 tank heading towards the Azovstal plant in Ukraine.
Russian soldiers on a T-80 tank heading toward the Azovstal plant in Mariupol on April 16, 2022.Maximilian Clarke/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

"They were very easily identifiable," Kofman added. "You can see an entire unit composed of nothing but captured Russian tanks."

That the tanks were trophies from a 1st Guards Tank Army defeat must be particularly galling to Moscow. The unit earned fame as a Red Army formation from World War II. It was deactivated in 1998 but reactivated with great fanfare in 2014 as an elite, well-equipped force that became the Russian army's prime ground maneuver unit.

The 1st Guard Tank Army took heavy losses in several battles around Kyiv and Kharkiv when it was deployed in Ukraine — and eventually had to be withdrawn for refitting.

Russian troops have been quite generous with their equipment, leaving an array of hardware, some of it undamaged, for Ukrainian forces to capture.

Living off captured hardware may work for insurgents, but it doesn't work for armies that need advanced weapons for protracted operations, and Ukraine now faces the question of how long these vehicles will be in fighting condition.

Ukrainian mechanics working on the turret of a T-80 tank in Kharkiv
Workers upgrade a T-80 tank at the Malyshev Tank Factory in Kharkiv in July 2015.SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images

While Ukrainian mechanics have worked wonders to restore captured Russian equipment — aided by the fact that most of Ukraine's pre-war arsenal was based on Soviet-era designs — sustained operations with Russian tanks will require a stream of parts from Russian factories.

"They don't have the parts that keep a lot of these running," Kofman said. "So on paper you may capture a lot of vehicles, but you don't have the engines, you don't have the transmissions, you don't have the parts to keep them going."

While Ukraine needs tanks and will get use out of them, Kofman said that ammunition and other spare parts are higher priorities: "First and foremost, it's artillery ammunition and replacement of artillery barrels. Alongside air-defense ammunition — that's missiles and what have you, and air-defense systems."

Kofman said that he believes Ukraine doesn't need tanks as much as it needs armored vehicles to carry infantry into battle.

"Ukraine has very large brigades of mechanized infantry, but to be mechanized, they actually need to be riding on something. Otherwise, Ukraine has a lot of manpower, not a lot of mobility," Kofman said at the Carnegie event.

Ukrainian soldiers stand next to a damaged tank in Izyum
Ukrainian soldiers with a damaged tank after the Russian withdrawal from Izyum in September.Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A similar situation played out in World War II; one reason German-panzer divisions were so formidable early in the conflict was that they were the first to carry infantry in armored half-tracks — rather than in soft-skinned trucks — so that infantry could safely keep up with the tanks.

Large numbers of immobile Ukrainian infantry "might work for a defense-in-depth strategy and that might work for holding Bakhmut," Kofman said, "but it's not going to work if you want to go on the offensive."

Kofman said that Ukraine still needs Western tanks, which have a more reliable supply of spare parts and ammunition. However, these tanks — including the older Abrams tanks the US has agreed to sendneed to be refurbished and could take months to arrive.

Political and public attention is focused on tanks — as well as fighter jets — for reasons that are as much symbolic as strategic, but discussions that are "overly centered" on tanks risk neglecting other crucial factors, Kofman said.

Such discussions often don't touch on "important things like force quality and training, expanding that, scaling it up, and dealing with the real challenges in the Ukraine force — things like communication systems, distribution of intelligence, surveillance assets, and intelligence," Kofman said. "A lot of other things have been very significant in this war but are less spoken of."

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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