“We need Western tanks,” said the Ukrainian tank crew

Perched on the front of an antique Soviet-designed tank near the front line in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, a Ukrainian soldier clutches a can of cat food turned into paraffin wax.

Commander Maxime’s brigade soldiers rely on this kind of – albeit precarious – DIY innovation to keep warm in the bowels of their tanks, like this T-64, one of the older tank models that make up the Ukrainian arsenal.

Drivers of these machines hope to one day get real on-board heating – if the kyiv lobby for newer, more modern tanks is successful with its Western allies.

But Commander Maxime admits: “The cold is the least of our worries”.

“The situation is very difficult, the equipment is broken” and the ammunition is missing, he told AFP under the falling snow.

Nearby, a young mechanic was working under an armored vehicle in the icy slush, digging deep crevices left by the tracks of forward engines.

“We don’t have spare parts to maintain the tanks and the rails are broken, so if our maintenance brigade sees a hit tank, they take what they need,” explained the commander.

– “Sit on ammunition” –

As such, the brigade showed AFP a series of tanks near Lyman, a war-torn town, which was recaptured from Russian troops in October but still close to the front line.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba again this week pressed the West, which is providing the country with military aid, including ammunition, artillery, anti-aircraft systems and armored infantry.

Interest has been focused specifically on the German Leopard 2 battle tank, which Poland, which has it, says it is ready for supply to kyiv, subject to the green light from Berlin.

These more modern tanks outperformed their Soviet counterparts in many ways, says Capt. Volodymyr Tchaikovsky, 54, but most importantly in ammunition storage.

“In a Soviet tank, the crew is sitting on top of the ammunition, so if the tank is hit it almost certainly means 100% of the crew is dead,” said the captain, while in the Leopard the shells were stored behind the armor. panels instead of the crew compartment.

“What matters to us above all is the safety of our crew and their lives is our priority. Equipment is replaceable, not personnel”, according to Mr Tchaikovsky. “That’s the main reason why we needed Western tanks. Everything else – GPS, night vision, thermal vision… – came after.”

– Not a “miracle cure” –

Mark Cancian, an analyst with the American think tank CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies), also emphasizes the importance of this point.

Even if for some that is a “design flaw” of the Leopard – keeping ammunition in the rear makes the tank bigger and makes it a bigger target – the expert speaks of a “compromise”. Which most Ukrainians seem ready to do.

According to Cancian, the newer tank also has a better target acquisition system and can attack at a greater distance than the tanks used by Russia and Ukraine.

The system can primarily be installed in the T-72, also a Soviet design, which makes up the bulk of the fleet of some 700 tanks that Ukraine will have when Russia launches its invasion on February 24, 2022, Cancian assured. .

And updating these T-72s could be a better option for Ukraine, he believed, than hoping for the arrival of the Leopards which, given the announced numbers, “would not be a miracle cure”. Because even though dozens of machines were delivered to Ukraine, “we are more in symbols than actual military potential”, for Mr Cancian.

But for Captain Tchaikovsky, whose 25-year-old son is a lieutenant in his battalion, Western aid is essential: “If we don’t get support from abroad, the conflict will drag on and there will be more losses”.

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