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Ukraine's New Offensive Is Fueled by Captured Russian Weapons

The Wall Street Journal. 10/5/2022 Yaroslav Trofimov, Manu Brabo
© Manu Brabo for The Wall Street Journal

KUPYANSK, Ukraine—Captured and abandoned Russian tanks, howitzers and fighting vehicles—quickly scrubbed of their Z tactical markers and repainted with Ukrainian crosses—are being turned against their former owners as Ukraine’s military advances in the eastern part of the country.

Ukraine’s rapid breakthrough in the Kharkiv region a month ago ended up putting hundreds of pieces of Russian armor into Kyiv’s hands, military officials say, as the Russian army left behind its heavy weapons and warehouses of supplies in a disorganized retreat.

Some Russian pieces of equipment were ready for immediate use, while others are being repaired to return to the front. Tanks, vehicles and guns too damaged to salvage are being cannibalized for spare parts. Crucially, Russia has also left behind large quantities of Soviet-standard artillery shells that had nearly run out in Ukraine.

This haul is helping power Ukrainian forces as they retake parts of the eastern Donetsk region, including the town of Lyman, and push further east into nearby Luhansk. Kyiv has regained more than 4,000 square miles of land in the east over the past month, in addition to advances in the south.

One Ukrainian battalion, the Carpathian Sich, seized 10 modern T-80 tanks and five 2S5 Giatsint 152-mm self-propelled howitzers after it entered the town of Izyum last month, said its deputy chief of staff, Ruslan Andriyko.

“We’ve got so many trophies that we don’t even know what to do with them,” he said. “We started off as an infantry battalion, and now we are sort of becoming a mechanized battalion.”

The chief of staff of a Ukrainian artillery battalion on the Kharkiv front said his unit now operates four recently captured Russian 2S19 Msta 152-mm self-propelled howitzers, alongside American-made guns, and now has abundant Soviet-caliber ammunition.

“The Russians no longer have a firepower advantage. We smashed up all their artillery units before launching the offensive, and then we started to move ahead so fast that they didn’t even have time to fuel up and load their tanks,” said the officer. “They just fled and left everything behind.”

Combined with weapons taken during Russia’s retreat from Kyiv and other parts of northern Ukraine in April, these recent gains have turned Moscow into by far the largest supplier of heavy weapons for Ukraine, well ahead of the U.S. or other allies in sheer numbers, according to open-source intelligence analysts. Western-provided weapons, though, are usually more advanced and precise.

Ukraine has captured 460 Russian main battle tanks, 92 self-propelled howitzers, 448 infantry fighting vehicles, 195 armored fighting vehicles and 44 multiple-launch rocket systems, according to visual evidence compiled from social media and news reports from Oryx, an open-source intelligence consulting firm. The real number is likely higher as not every captured piece of equipment gets filmed.

Not all the gear is cutting edge. “What they are capturing is a mix of modern equipment that they can use quite effectively, and some that really belongs in museums,” said Jakub Janovsky, who compiles the count of weapons losses at Oryx.

Russia has also seized Ukrainian weapons, mostly in the early days of the war as it overran large parts of the country. According to Oryx’s count, Russia captured 109 Ukrainian tanks, 15 self-propelled guns and 63 infantry fighting vehicles since February.

At Izyum, Ukraine gained more advanced Russian armor, such as T-90 tanks and BTR-82 infantry fighting vehicles with automatic cannon. The commander of Ukraine’s 92nd brigade, which played a major role on the Kharkiv front, was filmed this week taking a ride in a T-90, which wasn’t part of the Ukrainian arsenal before the war.

Western allies haven’t sent Western-made tanks to Ukraine. But Kyiv has received around 230 upgraded T-72 tanks from Poland and a few dozen more from the Czech Republic. American and European aid focused on providing Ukraine with North Atlantic Treaty Organization-standard precision artillery, such as the U.S.-made M777 and Paladin, German Panzerhaubitze 2000 and Polish Krab howitzers, as well as the Himars missile systems. These weapons allowed Kyiv to hold the line once it started to run out of Soviet-caliber artillery shells in May.

Ukraine’s experience learning how to operate different weapons systems in a relatively short time has made it easier to repurpose the recently acquired Russian weapons, said Col. Serhiy Cherevatyi of Ukraine’s Operational Command East.

“They are of the Soviet construction school that is easy to understand for us,” he said. “If our people have managed to learn how to use the Panzerhaubitze, the Krabs and the American Paladins, it’s not at all a problem to master the Russian systems that are similar to ours.”

While Ukrainian units often keep smaller captured weapons and ammunition, big-ticket items such as tanks and artillery are usually redistributed through the military’s logistics command, said Oleksiy Danilov, head of the country’s National Security and Defense Council. “But, even then, they usually stay in the same area, which is only fair,” he added.

Carpathian Sich, for example, transferred to other parts of the military captured howitzers and kept tanks for which it could find crews. The battalion commander said these tanks have now been formally allocated to the unit and are regularly supplied by the military’s logistics with ammunition and fuel, and serviced by visiting crews from Ukrainian tank plants. Ukraine was a major tank manufacturer and exporter before the war.

“Gaining the trophies gives us a sense of pride and raises everyone’s combat spirits,” said the commander, who used a captured Russian assault rifle in a recent battle during which the battalion seized a village in the Donetsk region.

Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at yaroslav.trofimov@wsj.com

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