Ukrainian soldiers are refurbishing abandoned Russian tanks and trucks

KYIV, Ukraine — It was an early and delightful symbol of underdog resistance. Dubbed the “John Deere Brigade,” Ukrainian tractors were shown all over social media lugging away hastily abandoned Russian military equipment, from tanks to self-propelled artillery systems to complicated air defense platforms, worth tens of millions of dollars. Western predictions that Ukraine would fall to its invaders in as little as three days proved wildly off base. The breadbasket of Europe could punch above its weight. And now it was in the repo business.

Around the time of the Battle of Kyiv, captured Russian vehicles were generally just given a quick coat of paint and liberally decked out with Ukrainian flags before being sent back out to fight their previous owners. But what was at first an organic and ad hoc tractor effort by Ukrainian farmers has transformed into something far more organized and systematic, as the Ukrainian military have pushed vast quantities of captured Russian armor into frontline service. And since Ukraine retook almost all of Kharkiv district in the last week, there has been a windfall of new vehicles to “MacGyver” and repurpose.

Two long lines of armored vehicles occupy a broad thoroughfare.
Russian tanks and motorized artillery systems seized by Ukrainian forces on display at Independence Square in Kyiv on Aug. 25. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the aftermath of Ukraine’s successful Kharkiv offensive over the past week, fleets of Russian armored vehicles were left abandoned on the battlefield, left behind by Russian troops as they desperately tried to escape the Ukrainian advance. Footage uploaded to social media by victorious Ukrainian troops showed rows of BMP infantry fighting vehicles, neatly parked in the liberated city of Izium, seemingly in near-perfect condition, while T-80U tanks from Russia’s elite Fourth Guards Tank Regiment were left abandoned at a maintenance station, in various states of repair.

According to the independent monitor Oryx, which uses publicly available footage to visually confirm Russian and Ukrainian equipment losses, the Ukrainians have captured a minimum of 1,841 pieces of heavy Russian military equipment since the start of the war, including 356 tanks, 606 armored fighting vehicles, and 363 trucks and jeeps. As Oryx only includes equipment that has been visually confirmed as captured, the true total is probably much higher.

“During the early days of the war, a lot of Russian vehicles totally ran out of gas and were abandoned in perfect condition,” said Yuri Matsarsky, a soldier in Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces (TDF), the nation’s military reserve. “That’s happening less in the last few months. But after Kharkiv, it’s picked up again.”

The Ukrainians have been repainting these captured vehicles in their now-familiar digital camouflage. They’ve also been upgrading and improving them. Captured “Tornado-U” trucks were given an extra Browning M2 heavy machine gun mounted on the cab, while a BTR-82A armored personnel carrier was upgraded with extra armor, a thermal-imaging sight, and Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet platform.

Teenagers clamber over a burned-out tank.
Young Ukrainians climb over a burned-out Russian T-90 tank captured by units of the operational command "South" of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. (Viacheslav Onyshchenko/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“Many of the vehicles we captured have been MT-LBs,” Pavlo Kazarin, another soldier in the TDF and a well-known journalist before the war, told Yahoo News, referring to the versatile Russian armored vehicle often used as an armored personnel carrier or an artillery tractor. “At least one of these has been upgraded with added weapons, such as a ZSU-2 23 anti-aircraft autocannon.”

In fact, one TDF brigade has an entire garageful of repurposed Russian armored vehicles, owing to what Matsarsky described as “special tactics” to immobilize Russian vehicles and force their crews to abandon them. “One group of TDF fighters used a light mortar to shell a Russian BTR armored personnel carrier that took a regular patrol route, intentionally bursting the vehicle’s tires and forcing the crew to leave it behind.”

“Many Russian vehicles that are left behind are not that badly damaged,” Matsarsky said. “The Russians simply lack the motivation or the discipline to repair them.” Despite Russia’s inability to match the latest Western advances in drone technology or precision-guided weapons, building rugged heavy trucks is always something it has historically done well.

And because so many Ukrainians were pressed into military service as a result of the war, they initially had to rely on civilian cars for transportation. Generally, these had limited off-road capability and no armor, making them highly vulnerable to Russian attack. One of Matsarsky’s commanders went through three vehicles in a single month due to shelling.

Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank down an empty road as photographers take pictures of it.
Ukrainian soldiers in a tank after the withdrawal of Russian forces from Izium, in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Thanks to what the Ukrainians have nicknamed “Russian Lend Lease,” more and more of Kyiv’s soldiers now drive around with bullet- and artillery-proof plating. That not only translates into fewer casualties but also into greater operational sustainability on the battlefield. Matsarsky joked that it’s often easier to simply steal a Russian armored vehicle for TDF’s use than to barter or argue with other units in the Ukrainian Army for an official deployment.

The “Tornado-U,” for instance, is one of Russia’s latest heavy military trucks, and the models the Ukrainians have captured feature an armored cab, a 440-horsepower engine and a 6x6 chassis. The Tornado-U can also easily drive off road and haul a range of towed weapons, such as howitzers or anti-tank guns.

Ukrainians have also been snagging other types of Russian kit. One BM-21 “Grad” Multiple Launch Rocket System was found beyond effective repair, and so the Ukrainians salvaged the rocket-launcher tubes and mounted them on the backs of pickup trucks. While it is old technology (Grad rockets are not too dissimilar to the “Katyusha” rockets the Soviet Army used in World War II), ammunition for such systems is still relatively plentiful, and the rockets remain deadly.

Ukrainian soldiers insist, however, that refurbished Russian materiel is no substitute for continued support from their Western partners.

Russian guns and tanks show a lot of wear and tear. The barrels are worn out and the age of the equipment is extremely dated, 30 or 40 years old, and sometimes even older than that.

“Imagine what miracles we could perform with a brand-new Abrams tank,” Matsarsky said.