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Russia is shipping very old tanks west, signaling shortage in Ukraine

A Soviet-made T-55 tank aboard a train that journeyed across Russia in 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
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Open-source researchers have found evidence that Moscow is dusting off Stalin-era tanks — some first deployed more than 70 years ago — and shipping them west, possibly a sign that battlefield losses have led to a shortage of armor for Moscow’s forces on the front in Ukraine.

According to photographs obtained by the Tbilisi, Georgia-based Conflict Intelligence Team, T-54 and T-55 tanks from the 1940s were spotted aboard a train departing from Arsenyev in the Primorsky Krai region of Russia’s Far East, heading west. Russia’s 1295th Central Tanks and Repair Storage Base is in Arsenyev.

The researchers could not confirm that the tanks were being sent for use in combat on the front in Ukraine. Both Russia, which occupies about a fifth of Ukraine’s territory, and Ukraine are short on weapons and ammunition, and they are relying on extensive stocks of old weapons.

But the T-54 series tanks would be especially old, and their use would signal trouble for Russia given that Ukraine is now awaiting deliveries of Leopard battle tanks from European supporters and M1 Abrams tanks from the United States.

The T-54s were adopted by the Soviet army in the mid-1940s when leader Joseph Stalin was in power. The T-55 series entered service in 1958.

Ukraine, pumped up by Western weapons, is held back by slow deliveries

This is not the first instance of Russia turning to old tanks. Last year, an elite Russian unit was found to be using T-62 tanks in Ukraine — Soviet-era tanks that were introduced in 1961. But the CIT’s report noted that this is the first recorded instance of T-54 and T-55 tanks being taken out of storage.

“Even an outdated tank is more useful than no tank at all,” the report stated. “But we consider the lack of range finders and ballistic computers (not to mention fire control systems) to be the key disadvantages of these series, as well as primitive sights and an inferior gun stabilization system.”

The Institute for the Study of War wrote in an assessment Wednesday that deploying such inferior equipment could lead to higher casualties.

“Each tank loss is the loss of a tank crew as well as the tank, after all, and it is not clear how effective these tanks will be against Ukrainian armored vehicles,” ISW said. “They are highly vulnerable to many antitank systems available to Ukraine.”

ISW added that the Soviet Union produced tens of thousands of T-54/55 tanks after World War II, and that Moscow may be turning to them to address shortages.

“Russian armored vehicle losses are currently constraining the Russian military’s ability to conduct effective mechanized maneuver warfare,” ISW wrote. “Russian forces may be deploying T-54/55 tanks from storage to Ukraine to augment these offensive operations and prepare for anticipated mechanized Ukrainian counteroffensives.”

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Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted Wednesday that the deployment of the T-54/55 tanks showed “the Kremlin’s determination to continue the war more or less forever.”

The CIT photos follow mounting evidence that Russia is experiencing serious supply problems, with dozens of conscripts recording videos in recent weeks communicating to President Vladimir Putin a lack of weapons and ammunition. Several recruits said they were given World War II-era guns, as well as rusting Kalashnikovs.

“We find it difficult to determine the possible uses of these tanks,” CIT wrote in its report, noting that Russia was also mobilizing armored personnel carriers and other vehicles from the 1950s and ’70s. “This clearly indicates severe issues with military vehicle supply.”

Western intelligence has also reported that Moscow’s tank losses are increasing. In February, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based analysis group, estimated that Russia had probably lost more than 2,000 tanks in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Oryx, an independent team of analysts that has tracked open-source intelligence on equipment losses, estimated that more than 1,700 Russian tanks have been destroyed, damaged or captured. According to the group, this is more than half of the operational tanks thought to be in Russia’s possession at the start of its invasion in February 2022. Ukraine, by comparison, has lost about 500 tanks, according to Oryx.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.