At the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military looked nigh unstoppable; large, modernized force bearing down on its smaller neighbor. A stout Ukrainian defense has given the lie to this notion, however, and demonstrated the flimsy nature of much of the Russian military machine.
In fact, only a year into the war, it appears as though the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is already scraping the bottom of the barrel to come up with equipment for its beleaguered forces. In addition to its fleet of Soviet-era armored vehicles, Russia can’t even supply its front-line conscripts with uniform rifles. To make matters worse, heavy Western sanctions combined with Moscow’s dwindling weapons stockpiles means there is no end in sight for the country’s supply woes.
Russia’s armored corps has been forced to rely on its rapidly aging T-62 main battle tanks (MBTs) due to a lack of more modern inventory and the massive armored losses it has suffered over the past year. Since the summer, Moscow has withdrawn more than 800 of its Soviet-era vehicles from storage. While some of these MBTs were slightly enhanced with upgraded sighting systems, many are just as archaic as they were decades ago. The UK’s Ministry of Defense was first to confirm visual depictions of Russia’s T-62 tanks traveling through Ukraine. First introduced in the early 1960s, the T-62 uniquely sported a coaxially-mounted main gun and a 7.62mm machine gun. Over the years, several improvements were incorporated into the T-62, including a greater frontal-turret protection.
As perfectly summed up by Forbes writer David Axe, Moscow’s decision to deploy its T-62 MBTs was laughable: “Russia’s Tank Plan: Take a 60-Year-Old T-62, Install New Optics, Send It To Ukraine To Get Blown Up.” While the Soviet-era tank has not served Russia’s armored corps well, the T-62 found a new life-line under Ukraine’s command.
Throughout the last year, thousands of Russian tanks, including dozens of T-62s, were either destroyed, left behind or captured by Ukrainian forces. Last month, Ukraine’s forces began converting these vintage MBTs into formidable engineering vehicles. These “armored recovery vehicles” are very useful and appear to add more value to Ukraine’s defense effort than the T-62 tank ever would.
Last month, Ukraine Weapons Tracker reported that Russia’s T-54 model MBTs have been deployed in Ukraine. This claim coincided with a widely circulated image depicting a Russian soldier in front of one of these aging armored vehicles allegedly in Ukraine. The T-54 series of MBTs was first introduced in the late 1940s as a replacement for the World War-II era T-34.
Over the years, this series of tanks underwent multiple facelifts to sport several new enhancements. While these Soviet MBTs never encountered its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) counterparts in battle, they were subsequently deployed by Syria in the Six-Day War against Israel, as well as fighting in Vietnam, Cambodia and Uganda.
While some of the more modernized variants of the T-55 series are quite advanced, the models Russia appears to be using in Ukraine were probably pulled straight from storage.
The AK-74 is Russia’s standard service rifle on paper. However, it has been reported that many Russian conscripts have been issued an older model of the current rifle, the AKM. This switch-up is significant since the AKM uses 7.62 ammunition instead of the 5.45 used in more modern variants. Since Moscow has been suffering from severe supply shortages due to exhausting its stockpiles and Western sanctions, requiring the production and delivery of two types of small arms is quite the stretch.
Much was made of the images circulated last fall showing Russian conscripts issued rusted firearms. While rust can be cleaned, it is striking that these troops are being armed with such old equipment relatively early in the conflict.
While the MoD may be prioritizing regular line troops for resupply of weapons – they will respond in defense of other regions of Russia or to new developments around the world – the fact that Russian stockpiles of modern weapons were already depleted and industry was unable to produce more only nine months into the war belies a true crisis of Russian supply.
Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel. You can follow her on Twitter: @MayaCarlin.