Everybody has seen billions of pics and videos of armor used by both sides during the conflict in Ukraine. The amount of BS propaganda and subsequent confusion is overwhelming. Many episodes have 4-5-6 versions and most probably we will never know what really happened. I am not going to scoop the world with some extraordinary discovery but use sources from both sides to try to give a more or less clear picture of armor usage during the first couple of months of the war (sometimes called ‘cold period’) up to the major clashes of the second half of August 2014.
In 1992 Ukraine inherited about 6,500 of all types (T-55, T-62, T-64, T-72 and T-80), from them over 2000 were T-64 of several versions. By 2011 Ukraine reportedly had 1000 T-64 tanks in the combat units and another 504 T-64 in storage, from the latter only 60 were service ready. Absolute majority of other types in serviceable condition were simply sold abroad. Though still having pretty large numbers on the paper, in reality most of the tanks demanded major repairs being on open storage without any proper service for years – most of the tanks in depots did not get any kind of full cycle maintenance since the collapse of the USSR in 1992.
In 2014 Ukraine had only two combat tank units – 1st Separate Tank Brigade (Chernigov) and 17th Separate Tank Brigade (Krivoy Rog). 1st STB was equipped with over 70 relatively new T-64BM Bulat and the rest were T-64BV, while 17th STB had also much simplified T-64Bs. Tank battalions were also in 30th and 7th Mechanized and 128th Mountain-Rifle brigades (30 tanks each).
About 150 tanks were in non-combat units like the 184th Training Center (Yarovsk). Most of the serviceable tanks in storage were in 1282 Armor Maintenance and Supply Center at Artemovsk and we will touch it a bit later. According to simple math – there had to be another 500 T-64 tanks but somehow history keeps silent about them. The fact was that by the start of hostilities Ukraine was incredibly low on armor, especially tanks. By the way, the other armored vehicles were mostly a salad of types of all ages. On March 20, 2014, 7 T-64B/BV tanks of 17th Brigade were destroyed by fire in the storage hangar.
The usage of tanks and armor during this period was relatively sporadic and mostly without any armor-oriented mindset. The tanks mostly employed as infantry support means besides at the first stages there were not too many of them. The first losses Ukrainian ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) troops started to suffer already in May when on separate occasions several BMPs were lost.
During the fight at Rubezhny on May 22, ATO 30th Mechanized Brigade lost 3 BMPs destroyed and 3 were taken trophy by separatists. Interestingly that in the same time newly proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) armed forces members managed to reincarnate a JS-3 tank from the Oleksandr-Kalinov memorial (Donetsk region), and on May 26 used it during attack on ATO Azov Battalion outpost. The tank was armed with heavy MGs and used as infantry support vehicles. Later it was abandoned due to mechanical issues (other versions state it simply got stuck in a ditch), and was taken by ATO and for some time preserved in Kiev.
In the same May, there were several cases of DPR armor appearing – several IMRs were taken in Novokramatorsk machinery plant and at least one PTS appeared from an unknown source (at least to me). Most of them were either destroyed or captured by ATO troops. Interestingly ATO was not only regular Ukrainian Army and other government structures, but also volunteering units like Azov and notorious Aidar battalions. Those were supplied by either captured or sponsored vehicles, later they became National Guard elements.
To counter ATO armor DPR and LPR (Lugansk People’s Republic) mostly used light AT means like SPG-9 RRs, RPGs and ATGMs, but also WWII anti-tank rifles. Due to the passiveness, lack of training and low morale of Ukrainian troops, partisan tactics of DPR/LPR units in most cases worked well, though it lacked overall command competence and related mainly on team leaders personalities and the mindset of a ‘sponsor’ (this is basically separate discussion not really related to tanks).
The first usage of tanks in combat was reported in the beginning of June during the first ATO attack on Slavyansk, according to the accounts at least two tanks were supporting infantry but at some point stopped and opened fire from long distance. Defenders responded by ATGMs but none of the sides scored. There were at least two other attacks with support of tanks – on June 14 and 17. At the same time in the Lugansk area, ATO first tank loss was recorded – on June 17th, T-64 of 128th Mountain-Rifle Brigade was disabled and abandoned at Metallist village. This tank has been recovered and used by LPR forces. The apogee came on June 19 to be known as the Battle of Yampol near Slavyansk. We will stop here to look closer as it is the only armor engagement with the sense of planning.
The idea was to take over the Yampol junction and cut DPR fighters in Slavyansk. There were three separate detachments of DPR forces of about 200 men, mostly with no-combat experience, having only heavy infantry weapons – RPGs, SPGs, 82mm mortars, AGS and one ZU-23-2. The rear was related mainly to the Malinovka based garrison with an estimated mechanized battalion size force with 30 armored vehicles (that number was over-exaggerated), another unit in Seversk was simply an infantry platoon.
On the other side ATO gathered a tactical force of about 1,500 men and 130 armored vehicles and artillery. The core was 25th Airborne Brigade (BMD) and 24th Mechanized Brigade (BMP of several types and 10 T-64BV), with additional units like 95th Airborne Brigade scouts (BTR-80 and Hammers), 73rd Special Forces Center (BTR-80), National Guard Bars Battalion (BTR-4). Artillery support was done by 6 Msta-B of 55th Artillery Brigade, 4 2S3, mortars and 6 BM-21 of 24th Mechanized Brigade and 5 2S9 of 25th Airborne Brigade, plus 9 D-30 of 80th Airborne Brigade.
At 0200H ATO artillery started to hammer DPR positions and by the morning the troops moved to attack from two directions – 25th Airborne convoy over the 513 Route (left flank) and 24th Mech convoy via Ostrich Farm (right flank). The convoy of 24th had two groups, each of 9 BMP-2, 3 TB-64BV, BTRs of NG, infantry in KamAZ trucks and other vehicles of various units. The party reached Yampol without any opposition, finding it empty – all left due to artillery barrage. The fate of the 25thAirborne was much bitter – a column of 6 BMDs with 1B119 Rheostat command vehicle and several KamAZ trucks and BTRs of NG, led by a T-64BV tank, ran into a well prepared ambush. Instantly SPG destroyed command Rheostat vehicle, mortars and snipers were working on already preset targeting.
An IED was detonated near the tank and another BMD was destroyed. KamAZ tracks were knocked out by ZU-23-2. According to the accounts there was absolutely no coordination between units, NG men locked themselves inside BTR and fired at all they could fire, including friendlies – the men were not combat-ready. The tank crew tried to pull back and got stuck, blocking the way for the convoy. The help came from the Yampol direction when the scouts of 95th Airborne Brigade attacked DPR positions and managed to force the enemy to flee. In total ATO lost 12 KIA, 25 WIA, a BMD and 1B119 vehicle destroyed, two trucks damaged and T-64BV disabled. One BMD has been captured. DPR forces losses could hardly be estimated but no more than 10 KIA.
But this was not the end of the day – a convoy of 24th Mech Brigade continued towards Zakotnoe village, having 15 BMP-2, 2 BTR-80, several (?) T-64BV and NG with BTR-4s. The party crossed the bridge and split – one section moved forward, another cut towards the higher ground and ran into the ambush. After a brief fight ATO forces destroyed several soft skin vehicles of DPR and one BRDM-2. A BTR-4 of NG got stuck due to a tech issue and was destroyed, after an order to retreat was received. The fight cost ATO 10 KIA and one BTR-4 destroyed. Despite unexpectedly tough opposition, DPR forces were broken and mainly fled. Due to incoming darkness, ATO troops decided not to mess up with cleaning and withdrew to initial positions.
The first tank in DPR was reported on June 12 and on June 26, two T-64BVs supported infantry attacks on the outpost of ATO 95th Airborne Brigade in the Slavyansk area, knocking out two Ukrainian BTRs. Some RPGs were fired back and scored some hits but with no harm. The main question remains where the DPR fighters got the tanks from? Of course the simplest answer is – RUSSIA. Frankly I doubt it due to numerous reasons.
Another interesting version is – they were taken from a storage base 1282 in Artemivsk and in reality, there were several attacks to breach the defenses and last and major occurred on June 20. All the attacks were repulsed by base defenders that also used one refurbished T-64BV tank, the only one they could manage and operate. According to some sources DPR forces managed to put hand on 14 T-64, 7 SPA, 12 BMP and 9 BM-21 MLRs storage at this base. Another 11 T-64, 11 BTRs, 7 BMPs and other stuff has been taken from other locations. Interestingly, the same separatists in their accounts are pretty skeptical of the value of the armor storage in the Artemev base, being in poor condition while the troops lacked trained crews.
Well, there is another version that I personally would grant a chance – the tanks and other armor were sponsored assets by local oligarchs (like Akhmetov) that originally wanted to have a ‘controlled separatism’ in opposition to Poroshenko and Kolomeisky regime. I will not elaborate any more as it would dive into a pure political discussion.
Whatever the source was we could see the first 10 of T-64BV tanks running in pairs all around Slavyansk in full day-light, in June-July, 2014, despite a well-publicized ATO ‘blockade’. Some of the tanks were destroyed or captured during the breakthrough of DPR forces from Slavyansk on July 5, 2014. BTW, ATO re-captured the BMD taken during the fight at Yampol. In July ATO tanks and armor were active near Donetsk Airport and other hot-spots like ill-fated attempts of taking over Saur-Mogila.
On July 11, a big ATO stronghold at Zelenopolye (Russian border) was hammered by heavy artillery fire, leaving dozens killed and wounded, among destroyed vehicles was T-64BV of 24th Mech Brigade that was hit by the round that detonated the ammo. On July 13, ATO T-64BM Bulat of 1st Separate Tank Brigade was destroyed by RPG fired from a short range, at Roskoshnoe village, Lugansk area. By the end of July ATO forces initiated a massed attack on Lugansk gathering elements of 1st Tank, 80th Airborne, 30th and 24th Mech and 128th Mountain brigades. Both sides suffered losses in armor.
During the period of Jul 19 – Aug 8, at least 115 armored vehicles of both sides were lost on all fronts, including 32 T-64 (27 ATO and 5 AFNR). Still there was no tank-2-tank combat, all tanks were mostly destroyed by infantry AT weapons.