#PutinAtWar: Soviet Tanks Reactivated in Russia’s East

Variants of the outdated T-62 were reactivated for Russia’s Vostok 2018 exercise and headed westward

(Source: Republic of Buryatia press service)

In the leadup to Vostok 2018 (Восток 2018 / East 2018), supposedly the largest Russian military exercise since the 1981 Zapad (Запад / West) exercises, preparatory exercises tested Russia’s Central and Eastern Military Districts’ capacity for mobilization in the event of all-out war.

Part of this exercise meant restoring large stores of Soviet-era tanks to working conditions. An estimate of approximately 20–40 tanks were sent to western Russia in the initial shipment, with more to follow. These tanks may possibly be gifted to Syria after the conclusion of the exercise, judging by their type and trajectory.

The Republic of Buryatia’s official press service reported that Logistical Support Units (MTO, from the Russian initials) in the Eastern Military District (VVO) started an exercise that would run from August 20 to August 25. The MTO exercises involved preparing two companies’ worth of stored T-62 and T-72 tanks for combat readiness. A single tank company would typically consist of ten tanks.

Several high-quality images accompanied the article, showing a high number of T-62s, no longer in active service with the Russian military, but kept in stock in case of a major war. The last time a T-62 saw combat with the Russian ground forces was in the 2008 August war against Georgia.

T-62MV (left) and Ms (right) loading on train cars. (Source: Republic of Buryatia press service)

Two variants of the T-62 were on display during this exercise, the T-62M and T-62MV. The T-62MV, displayed on the top left image is recognizable from its K-1 explosive reactive armor (ERA) bricks that line its sides, front and turret, whereas the T-62M is recognizable by its signature applique composite amour on its turret, sometimes called “brow armor” due to their resemblance of Leonid Brezhnev’s eyebrows.

Analyzing the imagery released by the Republic of Buryatia press service, @DFRLab geolocated the footage to the Central Base for Tank Reserves military unit 44286 in Ulan Ude. This base houses a large number of T-62 variants, both M and MV, as well as several T-72 variants.

Satellite imagery from May 29, 2018 showing the Central Tank Reserve Base in Ulan Ude compared to press footage from Vostok 2018. (Source left: Google Earth; Source right: Republic of Buryatia press service)

The unique roof shape of a barrack and shed-like structure in the background of one image were useful in geolocating the base and identifying the unit. One structure with a red roof was not visible in the reference image because of a temporary tent structure that was erected for the exercise. Satellite imagery from Planet helped solidify this hypothesis with the clear addition of a structure in that location in the leadup to the exercise, visible as an elongated dark smudge on the area in front of the tank yard.

Satellite imagery showing the clear addition of a structure in the lead up to the exercise. (Source: Planet Labs)

Despite multiple sources, including the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), stating that both T-72s and T-62s were brought to operational capability, no T-72s that could reasonably have been identified as coming from storage sites were spotted in transit.

A single image of T-72 variants were geolocated to the base in Ulan Ude during the time of the exercise, but were not considered as part of the same batch of re-activated vehicles. These tanks were parked in a loading area for the adjacent railroad, but their numbers (about a battalion’s worth), uniformity, and consistent numbering forced the conclusion that these tanks belonged to the 5th Tank Brigade, also stationed at this base. No other footage of these tanks in transit was found in the open source, suggesting that T-72s could possibly have been re-activated for the same purposes as the T-62s, but that no such footage was available.

Different T-72 variants at a military base in Ulan Ude. (Source: VKontakte)

However, in the case of T-62s, sightings were made on several occasions. While most official footage of the T-62s was from the military installations that refurbished them, most photography from third party sources depicted the tanks on rail cars throughout eastern Russia.

Twitter user Air Force Freak (@AIRFORCEFREAK) was especially active in retrieving images of T-62 variants in transit on rail cars in the time during and after the Vostok 2018 exercises. Air Force Freak’s first post about the movements was from August 20, attributing an image of two T-62MVs on a railway car to Arsenyev, a small town in Primorsky Krai.

This was also the location of another tank storage site in the VVO. On April 18, 2018, Livejournal user altyn73 posted a short article about the 1295th Central Storage Base for Armored Vehicles (CBKhT) in Primorye, which featured a wealth of images taken at the base. Among the vehicles photographed were several T-62Ms in various stages of refurbishment, in addition to the two lend-lease Sherman tanks recovered earlier this year, as previously reported. However, the image did not contain enough information for a positive geolocation to Arsenyev.

Still, many other images were posted on Twitter, primarily by Air Force Freak, depicting T-62 variants on the move by rail throughout Russia. Another was allegedly spotted at locations of different vehicle depots, but did many did not contain enough information for a definite geolocation.

It was clear already from the above tweet that the tanks were moving westward. Each update that followed confirmed further movement to the west.

On August 29, Twitter user Записки охотника ‏ (@galandecZP) posted a tweet showing two separate images of the T-62s, claiming that they were now in Chernyshkov, Volgograd Oblast.

On August 30, twitter user Aki Heikkinen (@akihheikkinen) posted an image showing a train car with a company’s worth of T-62Ms. The tweet claimed that they were the same tanks that were spotted the day prior in Chernyskov, and that they were now in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky, a town in the Rostov Oblast near the Ukrainian border.

Hours later, Twitter user Записки охотника posted the full photoset, which featured a hashtag @DFRLab uses frequently, corroborating that this was in fact in the Rostov Oblast.

‏The following day, Air Force Freak followed up to confirm that the tanks were still in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky.

On September 2, 2018, amid a flurry of contemporary images of westbound T-62s, Telegram channel milinfolive posted an images of two T-62Ms and two MVs parked at a port. The channel claimed that the image was from May 2018, which would suggest a steady export of the Soviet-era brawler. Early 2017 saw reports of exports of these types of tanks to Syria, in an effort to replenish losses incurred by the Syrian Arab Army’s 5th Corps.

(Source: Telegram / Milinfolive)

These tanks bore the same markings as the more recent images, suggesting they were transported in a similar manner. Satellite imagery validated milinfolive’s claims, as Google maps footage from April 14, 2018, showed 19 tanks near the location of the image, the exact location of the tanks was vacant in the satellite imagery, but the tank closest to that location in the satellite imagery was angled in the correct direction, suggesting that this may be the first half of a battalion-sized batch (~30-40).

Geolocation of T-62Ms and MVs at Novorossiysk port. (Source left: Telegram / Milinfolive; source right: Google Earth)

More footage recently located by Air Force Freak showed a similar shipment, but recorded at a date and time unknown, possibly this was a separate shipment.

On September 5, Aki Heikkinen posted an excerpt of a collection of images and a video of several T-62 variants in Krasnoyarsk.

The video displayed 27 T-62s, with some obscured behind a pedestrian bridge. Likely, the full shipment amounted to approximately a battalion’s worth of T-62s.

Conclusion

Current estimates of refurbished T-62s sent to western Russia in the lead-up to Vostok 2018 lie somewhere between 60 and 120, the lowest number assuming that two companies and a single battalion were sent, and the highest assuming three full battalions’ worth. The low assessment assumes that a single company was shipped from Ulan Ude, another from from Arsenyev, and the third shipment spotted in Krasnoyarsk being a full battalion’s worth of T-62s. The high assessment based on available open source evidence assumes two companies of T-62s from Ulan Ude, another two from Arsenyev, the Krasnoyarsk shipment consisting of 40 T-62s, and the video uploaded on September 3 being a separate 40-tank shipment.

It is not yet possible to determine whether the T-62s reactivated in Vostok 2018 preparations were heading for Syria, but with Russia’s large supply of T-62s, and Syria’s demand, it is possible that the tanks would be utilized after the exercises. The tanks moved close to Novorossiysk, a common port for transporting military equipment from Russia to Syria through the Black Sea.

Even though the T-62s were seen by a town very close to the Ukrainian border, they are not likely to cross into Ukraine. Russian-led separatist tank forces consist exclusively of T-72 and T-64 variants, most of which were gifted from Russia. These two tanks are similar in many respects, and highly compatible. The T-62, on the other hand, is different in nearly every aspect, including fire control system and ammunition type.

Even if these tanks were not bound for Syria, the observations are still notable as they show how deep Russia will go into their reserves, considering that hundreds of more modern T-64s, T-72s, and T-80s are also in storage in several locations throughout the country.


Michael Sheldon is an Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

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