With the 3rd Ukrainian “Iron” Tank Brigade, near Kharkiv

From our special correspondent in Ukraine,

In the heart of a forest located in the Kharkiv region, the exact location of which is kept secret, the members of the 3rd Ukrainian brigade of “iron” tanks and their faithful vehicles offer themselves a breather. The military van which is heading towards the base shows many jolts in the ground plowed by the tires and the tracks. The tennis ball that adorns the rear view mirror moves up and down to the sound of Ukrainian techno music. It is forbidden to photograph structures or tank numbers, warns Mykola, the brigade’s press officer. “This territory was occupied by the enemy, our buildings could be recognized”, he explains, between two bumps of the forest road. Kharkiv Oblast was indeed partially conquered by Russian forces before being recaptured in early October 2022, thanks to the victorious counter-offensive by kyiv.

Since then, the men who defend the sovereignty of Ukraine have resumed their place in this border region of Russia. War tanks follow one another, nestled in tree-lined alcoves, their guns and armor covered with camouflage netting. In the middle of the trees emaciated by the passage of winter, the soldiers discuss. Some light a cigarette near these Soviet-era tanks that accompany them to the front, located less than 100 kilometers away. Because if the Western media focus on the deliveries of Leopard 2 tanks, the Ukrainian forces are above all equipped with ancient T-72s. “We call them mobilization tanks because they are very easy to handle,” explains Mykola. An advantage for this brigade which was sorely lacking in professional manpower at the start of the invasion.

“All mobilized but all volunteers”

“Before the war, this brigade was made up of 130 people who took care of the maintenance of the equipment,” explains Deniys, the battalion commander, his hands clasped behind his back. The war reshuffled the cards of the brigade which saw a lot of new blood flowing with the mobilization. 97% of the soldiers on the base are former civilians. Kochiy*, is the leader of a crew “known and very effective against the Russians”, according to Deniys. “In the Zaporozhye region, you won’t find an infantry soldier who doesn’t know them,” says the battalion commander.

To function, a T-72 tank needs three crew members: a leader, a driver and mechanic and a gunner. Alchimik*, the crew gunner, was a farmer and Celentano*, the tank driver, was a welder. “I was a car mechanic”, completes Kochiy before specifying however, with the approval of his colleagues: “Here, we are all mobilized but all volunteers. »

The soldiers of the crew fought in the region of Zaporozhye, in the South, where very heavy fighting is taking place. Kochiy narrows her piercing blue eyes as she explains, “I was born in the area. Now my village doesn’t even exist anymore. The civilian life of the soldiers of the 3rd “iron” tank brigade slowly faded away to make way for “the experience of fire” and a litany of war anecdotes. “We were targeted by camera drones several times but the shells fell next to our tank”, says the crew commander before adding under laughter: “We are immortal! Further on, perched on one of the T-72s, Yaroslav explains that his unit was not so lucky.

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“We lost our tank”

Aged 31, he is also a crew chief and works with Borel, who drives and Andriy, who pulls. The three men lost their tank last September while fighting near Marinka in Donetsk Oblast. “We came under fire while we were attacking. We did not spot its origin but we quickly realized that we were on fire, remembers the 30-year-old. I gave the order to evacuate but Borel was stuck. »

In a T-72, the driver sits at the front of the vehicle, under the gun, and has his own hatch to get in and out of. But “the cannon had fallen on the opening”, recalls Borel. Andriy then rushed to free his colleague and managed to extricate him from the burning tank. “Then we crawled to join an infantry tank in the rear, about 200 yards away. There were explosions all around us and debris on the ground,” Yaroslav describes. Andriy, intoxicated by the smoke, “started to faint” but “we made him crawl anyway”, says Yaroslav with a smile. The three men then sadly witnessed the explosion of their tank: “It was the only time we lost our tank and we pray to God that it will be the last. »

Russian tanks and French thermal cameras

In the midst of an invasion, every tank is valuable to the Ukrainian forces. The number of tanks available to the brigade is a secret but “it’s not enough”, assures Mykola. The soldiers are especially annoyed by the thermal cameras with which Russian tanks are equipped and which have been sold by French companies. “On optics, we are angry. These tanks were designed forty years ago, but these technologies are five or seven years old and are really essential. We can see for a kilometer, they can see for four kilometers with the French equipment,” sighs Yaroslav. “But if you don’t want to send us thermal cameras, send us Leclerc tanks, we’ll manage,” laughs the crew commander.

In the meantime, Ukrainian forces loot defeated Russian tanks, sometimes finding many spare parts. “We made arrangements with Russia long before our European allies on the delivery of tanks,” laughs Andriy. The members of the brigade intend to continue to accumulate victories and repel the enemy village by village. Ukrainian tanks are on the front line in the offensives. “We do not yet know when we will be redeployed. But it will necessarily be in combat zones, ”assures Yaroslav, his hand resting on the tank which will faithfully accompany the men on their next mission to liberate the country.

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