Eight years ago Uralvagonzavod Research and Production Corporation, a Russian manufacturer of armored vehicles, developed a new version of the classic T-72 tank.
The T-72B3 obr. 2014 has a new, more powerful engine, a better kind of explosive reactive armor and a new panoramic sight on top of the turret. It is, in concept, a better-protected, more mobile version of a tank that has plenty of design flaws. Most vexingly, a tendency dramatically to explode when hit.
But the T-72B3 obr. 2014 is a show tank. It debuted at the 2014 edition of the Russian army’s annual tank biathlon. And that pretty much has been the limit of its impact on Russian modernization. In the first three years Uralvagonzavod produced only around 20 copies.
It’s no secret the Russian army is desperate for tanks after writing off at least 1,200 T-62s, T-72s, T-80s and T-90s since widening its war on Ukraine back in February. It seems a Russian brigade, quite possibly the 5th Tank Brigade, got its hands on some of those T-72B3 obr. 2014 show tanks.
We know this because we have photos of at least one show tank in active service. And because the Russians subsequently lost at least three T-72B3 obr. 2014s in a disastrous attack outside the town of Bohorodychne in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in July.
The Ukrainian army on Sept. 11 liberated Bohorodychne—then a ghost town mostly populated by the corpses of murdered Ukrainians—as part of its sweeping counteroffensive that kicked off in late August. It found two rusting T-72B3 obr. 2014 hulks, as well as one operational show tank the Russians had abandoned. The tank’s combat record so far has been much less successful than its show career was.
It’s not fair solely to blame the tank, of course. The Russian attack outside Bohorodychne two months ago was notoriously clumsy. At least five Russian tanks packed into a small clearing that the Ukrainians turned into a kill box. One by one, mines or artillery disabled each tank.
The appearance in Ukraine of more and more weird Russian vehicles is symptomatic of the steep losses the Russians have suffered. It’s no coincidence that Ukrainians troops liberating Bohorodychne also found the wreckage of a very rare BMP-2M fighting vehicle.
The Kremlin is trying to make good its manpower losses in Ukraine by drafting 300,000 men, mostly from outlying oblast. And it’s making good its equipment losses in part by scrounging every weird weapon it can find in storage, at a technical school or–yes–at a tank biathlon.