Most of the dozens upon dozens of tanks here are T-64s – the aging Soviet stalwart that is the current workhorse of the Ukrainian army, but one can encounter T-62s and T-72s as well.
The story of how these tanks got here is one of war, waste and corruption. But it might also offer a little hope for the future.
In the late 1980s, with the Cold War still on, the Soviet Union had an estimated 53,000 main battle tanks. As late as 1991, Soviet tank factories could still produce thousands of tanks a year. The Malyshev Tank Factory in Kharkiv alone made 800 tanks in the last year of Soviet Ukraine’s existence.
Yet when conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine suddenly found itself very short of tanks. Where did they all go?
“Ukraine had approximately 5,000 to 7,000 tanks left after the breakup of Soviet Union,” military expert and director of consulting firm Defense Express Serhiy Zhurets told the Kyiv Post. “But I doubt that the government has allocated any funds for tank maintenance at all for the last 25 years. About 10 tanks could have been kept in good condition, but no more.”
According to defense website GlobalSecurity.org, from 1995 to 2014 the number of operational Ukrainian tanks fell from nearly 5,000 to only about 1,100. The Canadian Department of National Defense reckons Ukraine lost about a quarter, or 220 tanks, captured or destroyed in the war in the east by August 2014, and many more are certain to have been lost in the bouts of heavy fighting since then.
Because of high costs of maintenance, Ukraine sold off or mothballed its entire force of more modern T-72 tanks. At least 1,000 of them are rusting away in outdoor storage areas, and will probably never again be usable.
On top of that, Ukraine has sold off hundreds of tanks on the international arms market, making it the ninth (2010-2014) of the world’s top arms exporters. The lingering Soviet culture of military secrecy, and undoubted corruption, means that a reliable inventory of operational Ukrainian tanks became practically impossible to compile in the 1990s and 2000s, by experts outside the country and even inside it.
“Public oversight of this sensitive sphere is actually absent,” Leonid Poliakov, then-director of military programs for the Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies, said in a 2003 study,” according to a report published in 2005 in Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail.
“In such a situation one cannot rule out violations and abuses involving grave consequences for the country,” Poliakov said in his study, presciently.
Oleksandr Sushko, director of the Centre for Peace, Conversion and Foreign Policy, a think-tank in Kyiv, told the Globe and Mail that “arms exports used to be the most secret industry in Ukraine. The military thoroughly concealed all the statistics.”
As a result, nobody – not even the Ukrainian military – is now able to give an accurate account of where the thousands of tanks Ukraine inherited on the breakup of the Soviet Union have gone.
What is known is that hundreds, perhaps thousands, have ended up in outdoor storage sites dotted around the country, like the Kyiv Armored Vehicles Plant. The plant, which was designed to produce new tanks and armored personnel carriers, as well as repair them, has mostly been used as a storage site for Defense Ministry’s property since Ukraine became independent.
Deputy Director of Kyiv Armored Vehicles Plant Volodymyr Voronin told the Kyiv Post that “a junkyard” or a “tank cemetery” are not the right words to describe the site. “We call it an area for placing redundant state property.”
“By the way,” he added, “all the tanks have been counted, even those that look now like a pile of waste, from which trees are growing.”
There are at least 350 tank hulks in the plant’s outdoor storage area – equal to perhaps a third of Ukraine’s present tank force.
The number of tanks left over from the Soviet Union was overwhelming for independent Ukraine, which could not keep so many war machines in good condition. Maintaining a tank in battle-ready condition costs about Hr 2,000 a day, as regular oiling, bleeding, and cleaning are needed. So the tanks were put in storage awaiting “better times,” Voronin said.
“Ukraine simply could not maintain so much machinery. It was decided to keep in operation only those units that were needed for tank brigades. Some were sold to African countries,” he said.
Although the site is secured by armed guards, adventurous local children have been known to jump the fence to play among the abandoned war machines. Homeless people have also entered the site, looking for anything they can prize off the rusting hulks to sell.
“There have been cases of scrap metal disappearing,” Voronin said. “That’s why we take away all of the non-ferrous metals.”
But with the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the plant has started to come to life again. Tanks hulls are being taken from the storage site, repaired, their wiring stripped and replaced, and new engines and weapons installed.
“Every tank could be repaired, as long as it’s not been cut in half,” Voronin told the Kyiv Post. “When the government asks us to make a tank, they bring the parts that we can’t repair, and we use the hulls of the old tanks. But it’s very labor-intensive process and sometimes it is more expensive to restore them than buy new ones.”
Ukraine’s Malyshev tank plant can produce new tanks – the Opolot-M, based on the Soviet T-80 – but according to Serhiy Pinkas, the deputy head of state defense holding Ukroboronprom, it makes more economic sense to sell these abroad and use the money to renovate the old T-64s. “It’s more efficient to export the Oplot than to use it in the war, Pinkas said in an interview with the Bloomberg news agency in June. “It sells for $4.9 million overseas. It’s better to sell it and use the money to fix and modernize 10 T-64s.”
According to Ukroboronprom’s official website, by the end of 2015, Kyiv Armored Vehicles Plant will have produced four times as many tanks and other military equipment as it did in 2014. The plant’s director, Vladyslav Lysytsya, wrote on Ukroboronprom official website that the plant has already constructed 25 tanks and 53 armored troop carriers this year. “Even at the moment, output is greater than it was last year,” Lysytsya said.
With the new work, Kyiv Armored Vehicles Plant is getting more productive and less corrupt, Pinkas said in a statement on the Ukroboronprom website.
“There will be no excuse anymore for delaying the production of new equipment, and for corrupt scandals,” he said. “The plant has now become one of the best within the whole concern.”
See more photos of the tank storage yard here.
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