Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region have captured a very rare Ukrainian T-64BM Bulat tank.
The roughly 100 Bulats that Ukraine’s tank plant in Kharkiv produced starting in the 1990s never really work as advertised. Into storage they went … until the Ukrainian army apparently got desperate enough to send some of them to the front line.
The Ukrainians seem to have reached that point before late April, as mounting losses of armored vehicles strained the growing roster of Ukrainian brigades.
The T-64BM is an oddity. Kyiv’s two active tank brigades and 11 other active heavy brigades generally use T-64BVs, while reserve brigades mostly have T-72s.
The 1960s-vintage T-64BV is an older but more sophisticated tank than the ’70s-vintage T-72 is. The T-64BM in theory is more advanced than the T-64BV is, but the army reportedly was unhappy with the type’s new explosive reactive armor.
Around the time of the Russian attack, a few Bulats resided at the Ukrainian army’s tank school in Kharkiv. A pair got knocked out in Russia’s bombardment of that eastern city. The other T-64BMs apparently were in a warehouse or vehicle park somewhere until the army reactivated at least a few of them.
The abandoned T-64BM appeared in a video that circulated on social media on Saturday. The hulking, 40-ton tank with its reactive armor and 125-millimeter main gun appears mostly to be intact.
That raises the prospect that separatist forces might fix up the vehicle and turn it against the Ukrainians. Russian and separatist troops have captured no fewer than 72 Ukrainian tanks that independent analysts can confirm with videos and photos.
The separatists for years have operated workshops in former civilian factories where they repair captured Ukrainian vehicles. “We started with armored vehicles, then we got troop-transporters and tanks,” one plant’s assistant manager told a reporter. “We repair everything!”
The Ukrainians do the same thing, of course—and apparently on a grander scale. Since Russia widened its war on Ukraine on Feb. 23, Ukrainian troops have captured no fewer than 215 Russian tanks. “Everything that we take away from the Russian army, we transfer to the armed forces of Ukraine,” Yuri Golodov, who oversees a junkyard where workers strip and rebuild captured vehicles, told CNN.
Ukraine’s greater holdings of captured tanks—and the fact that Ukrainian troops have destroyed no fewer than 275 Russian tanks while losing in combat just 53 of their own—helps to explain why, in late April, one Pentagon official claimed Ukraine actually had more tanks in the war zone than Russia did.
That doesn’t mean the Ukrainian army isn’t hurting for armored vehicles. Kyiv massively has expanded its army since Moscow began building up forces for the wider war starting in early 2021. In addition to standing up territorial battalions, the Ukrainian army also has mobilized its reserve formations, including four tank brigades each with a hundred tanks.
That is to say, Kyiv’s requirement for tanks has grown, a lot. The need apparently was more than ex-Russian tanks and donated foreign models could meet as of a few weeks ago, if the Bulat’s appearance is any indication.
Don’t necessarily expect to see a lot more Bulats in action. There were only ever 100 or so of the tanks. The Russians have destroyed at least two of them and captured one. The T-64BV still is the most common tank in Ukrainian service by a large margin. And the proportion of T-72s is increasing as more foreign allies donate their old tanks to Kyiv.