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Tankspotting: T-90As in the Donbass

April 2, 2017

By Veli-Pekka Kivimäki

Translations: Русский

The presence of Russian T-72B3 tanks in eastern Ukraine has previously been established and covered on Bellingcat. The tanks have reportedly been used near Ilovaisk, the Luhansk airport and even Debaltseve. The T-72B3 represents post-Soviet tank development by the Russian Federation, and was not exported to or fielded by Ukraine.

Another post-Soviet development with its root in the T-72 program is the T-90 main battle tank and its variants, currently representing the peak of armored warfare capability of Russian ground forces. First production versions of the T-90 were produced in 1992, and during the lifetime of the program a few export models (e.g. T-90S, T-90SM) have been produced. These have not however been exported to Ukraine, where the domestic military industry worked on other modernizations based on e.g. the T-72 and T-80.

A distinctive feature often associated with the T-90 family tanks are “glowing eyes” on the turret. These “eyes” are the electro-optical interference emitters of the Shtora-1 active protection system, intended to disrupt the guidance systems of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs).

Another main battle tank equipped with the Shtora-1 system is the Ukranian T-84. Thus, the presence of the system alone is not enough to establish a tank as Russian of origin, but differential identification with other features of the tank needs to be done. In the case of T-90 and T-84, the protective configuration on the turrent is significantly different, as the explosive reactive armor (ERA) elements on the T-90s turret have a distinct wedge shape. The smoke launcher configuration is another feature that can easily be compared.

Ukranian T-84 main battle tank, with Shtora-1.

To distinquish between different main variants of the T-90 tanks, the composition of the turret can be examined. The turrets of early T-90 tanks were manufactured by casting the metal, which leaves the turret with round shapes. By contrast, turrets on newer variants such as the T-90A are manufactured by welding, giving the turret sharper edges. These differences are illustrated below.

Left: cast turret of a T-80BV. (Source)
Right: welded turret of T-90A. (Source)

The rounded shape of the cast turret causes the ERA not to be completely aligned on the early manufacture T-90s, while on the welded turret of the T-90A the ERA elements are aligned neatly. The position of the top two smoke projectile launchers are also slightly different between the T-90 and the T-90A.

Left: T-90 cast turret. (Source)
Right: T-90A welded turret. (Source)

T-90A sightings in Ukraine

In the summer of 2014, reports of T-90 family tank sightings in eastern Ukraine started to appear. A Telegraph article cites a Ukrainian activist with the words: “Lugansk. We are retreating. Long convoys of tanks […] The men have endured a battle with a battalion of new Russian T-90 tanks”. Until 2016, there was only limited visual evidence supporting the claims.

One piece of visual evidence has surfaced in the form of a YouTube video, reported to have been filmed on August 25th, 2014. That would place the video’s filming date towards the end of Battle of Ilovaisk, meaning a phase of active hostilites between the forces. A noteworthy fact is that a number of Russian tanks were destroyed during the battles. The exact filming date however is difficult to determine without access to the original source, but the video can be geolocated to confirm the filming location.

Left: T-90A photographed 2013 in Russia. (Source)
Right: T-90A filmed in eastern Ukraine.

The existence of the video was first reported by Ukrainian conflict researcher Askai707, who tweeted about it on 21.11.2016. At the same time, he posted a geolocation of the video, documenting the presence of T-90A tanks in the conflict zone. The video was filmed near a railroad crossing south-east of Lyse (48.469797 39.596891), a small Ukrainian locality in the Luhansk oblast.

Geolocation of the video. Top: marked prominent features in still from the video, Bottom: same prominent features in Google Earth, source: @askai707

As mentioned earlier, the video was allegedly filmed on August 25th, 2014. According to situation update by Ukraine’s NSDC for the date, Ukranian positions were holding at Novosvitlivka – just 6 km west of Lyse where the video has been filmed. Proximity of hostile forces could thus be one explanation of the uncovered elements of the Shtora-1 countermeasure suite.

Situation in eastern Ukraine, according to Ukraine’s NSDC on August 25th, 2014. (Source)

The presence of Russian servicemen from the 136th Motorized Infantry Brigade in this area was previously documented by Askai707. The same brigade also operates T-90A tanks. Both InformNapalm and Askai707 had established that tanks of this brigade operated in eastern Ukraine in summer 2014. The imagery also shows T-90A tanks, however the geolocatable imagery only shows parts of the tank or the rear on an open road. The position of the geolocated imagery is depicted below:

Position of geolocated imagery in eastern Ukraine.

The position marked with (1) is the new video discussed in the article, (2) shows a soldier on top of a tank near a road sign, and (3) marks the position of T-90A tanks on the move on the road. The imagery always shows tanks with a similar camouflage scheme. Additional imagery also showing a T-90A from the front is known. While these imagery shows “soldiers” with white arm bands in front of the tank indicating that it was made in eastern Ukraine and other imagery from the same account shows the Luhansk airport after the capture, it was not possible to satisfactorily geolocate the imagery.

Imagery showing T-90A tanks in eastern Ukraine. Top left: Video near Lyse (1), Top right: Photographs south of Luhansk (2), Bottom left: M04 near Prydorozhnje (3), Bottom right: Unknown, likely near Luhansk airport.

In summary, the sightings and analysis compiled by Askai707 and InformNapalm during the war in Ukraine clearly documents the presence of T-90A tanks, likely from the 136th Motorized Infantry Brigade, in eastern Ukraine during the summer of 2014. At least three tanks of this type operated in the area. The T-90A is one of several examples of military equipment that appears to have been moved from Russia to the conflict zone in Ukraine to assist in the fight against Ukrainian government’s forces, in addition to the earlier reports of T-72B3s, as well as TOS-1 multiple launch rocket systems in the Donbass.

Thanks to Klement Anders for the initial research and write-up.

Veli-Pekka Kivimäki

Veli-Pekka is a doctoral student at Finnish National Defence University, researching social media and open source intelligence. He has a long background in the technology industry, more recently focusing on defense research.

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25 Comments

  1. Michael

    The only person in the world that does not acknowledge Russia started WAR and invaded Ukraine is TRUMP! Russian ideology is TAKE what can be taken!!!! The world better put an end to this ideology or the russian cancer will spread deeper into Ukraine, through the baltic states and the middle east! WAKE UP!!!!!

    Reply
    • Constantine

      Only a man who’s never been to Russia or complitely stupid can say such a bull…t …
      The only thing YOU should understand about russians is that we don’t really give a damn about invading anywhere. Why should we? Remember Gaddafi’s speech to UN and settle down. Stop looking for enemies across the boarder.

      Reply
    • Yuri

      The Russian bots have a crappy parsing algorithm. They don’t seem to detect new posts that well. Maybe tied to number of comments? But I agree they are coming 🙂

      Reply
  2. Dmitry

    Great works guys.
    I think the most of us, Russians, know about our army involving in this conflict, but, sadly, the majority of Russians are ok with that.

    Reply
  3. Andrea

    There are no russian bots cause this article follows an irrefutable logic flow… the only possible failure point is that the video is a fake…

    Reply
    • stranger

      There is no “Russian trolls” here because the article doesn’t contribute anything new and is outdated for 3 years! Those are events of 2014. Now the Minsk agreement is up to date. Why none of the billing-cats article ever mention Minsk peace agreements? How do you think? Because they are working only for a war.

      Reply
    • Feanor

      Paid troll bots don’t care about logic. They work off of volume and persistence.

      Reply
    • stranger

      Trolls ignore logic. Because they want to impose some predefined view on others. Trolls tend to speak in slogans and cliches, trying to catch by emotions, or just because they have nothing to fill the logical gaps with.
      Other than that nobody cannot tell for sure who is just trying to please own self ambitions and who is pursuing an aim to affect others views.
      It’s even more difficult because not every troll is paid, there may be volunteers.
      So I believe the criterion – a troll is somebody who ignores the logic is the closest possible.
      Anticipating your question – I’m not a troll. Believe it or not. I don’t care.

      Reply
      • myownbusiness

        No, stranger, I don’t think you get paid. Sad for you I suppose. The Kremlin has put in a serious effort in recent years to creating credible figures such as “banterer from Boston” or “crazy Parisian,” with idiomatic plausibility. Those are the ones on the gravy train. I can still tell…mostly, but I’m an expert. The trouble is, even if the diction were perfect, the barrow they’d have to push for Dyadya Vova would still be too unwieldy and unbelievable. Here is the thing though: Russia is still poor, and its people still more or less miserable, with no sign of economic or institutional improvement on the horizon. True, most Russians are not yet complaining about that. Nevertheless, all the resources that go into this nonsensical online battle for international opinion, and the military battles for slices of albatross territory in neighbouring countries, which can never be better than open wounds for Russia…(mixing my metaphors there – Omalouda) … Why not instead put those into improving schools, hospitals, rail and road, and into ameliorating the diabolical institutional culture, so that people no longer expect to be barked at by clerks at the post office or polyclinic, or haggle with each other about their places in the живой очереди? Russia doesn’t need to be an empire – or even a держава, and gains nothing by trying to hang onto that status; certainly not respect. Most developed countries are not empires, and they get along with each other all the better for that.

        Reply
        • stranger

          Thank you, but I’m quite good with what I earn at my primary job. I have no idea what freaks, or “Boston bartenders” or “partisans”, are you talking about.
          Russia is comparably poor, but Russians are not miserable, and they never complaint, that is true. The living standards have been greatly improved for the last 20 years and many people consider what we have now as a revival from the harsh 90s.
          Russia is not an empire, you are just abusing worn out cliches. As for Ukraine and Belarus they have been always very important for Russia, but not in the sense you are assuming.
          Besides money there are some more important things as to respect yourself, as to keep sovereignty, as to be able to defend yourself. Not everything is measured in money. Money can’t buy you happiness. You should know that perfectly. 🙂

          Reply
        • stranger

          Also why do you think that economics would grow and people would live safely if Russia give up its sovereignty, its international ambitions, get rid of nuclear weapon, if it will refuse to be держава as you said and take the role of externally managed developing country or most probably a conglomerate of hostile to each other separated countries as it was done to the ME? And держава means sovereignty and consistency, far not Empire, right? No, most probably the situation in economics would be much worse, the new local war may reappear, the same Chechnya. We have already seen that in 90s, which started as romantic перестройка and ended up by the harshest devastation and multiple local wars. Those risks are real, and many Russians don’t want to take this risk.

          Reply
    • Yuri

      The little Putin servants will always find a way to express their stupidity. As in this case –
      1) “Nothing new”. Yes, vovochka and dimon are still liars as before.
      2) “Minsk agreement”. How about “Budapest treaty”, you little turds?
      3) Why the little trolls are spamming all comments? Because they are working for losers in Kremlin.

      Reply
      • stranger

        Yuri is a characteristic example of a pathetic Ukrainian troll as described above.
        Ignoring logic – everybody who refuses to blame Russia without proves is a Kremlins troll
        Expressing himself by slogans and cliches – Russian government is always lying
        Appealing to emotions – you are working for losers, you are spammers.
        Substitution of the topic – Minsk? And what about children starving in Africa?

        Reply
        • Yuri

          Ukrainian troll? Thank you for the compliment, stranger. I am sure someday you would like to aspire to that, too.

          As for the rest of it, please talk to someone who can formulate logical thoughts, and then come back and rephrase.

          Reply
      • stranger

        The only question if he is paid or hired by the Ukrainian Ministry of Information aka Ministry of Truth? 🙂

        Reply
        • Yuri

          Yes, you said you were Ukrainian, so you should answer who paid you or hired you.

          Reply
          • stranger

            I’ve said I’m from Russia, born in Moscow. Everything else about me is your fevered delirium.

  4. Zaida

    Russian imperialism has always been genocidal.
    Russia with its deadly nuclear arsenal is the biggest threat to the West. Wake up!

    Reply
  5. Mr.Bushkin

    A good read, but I am quite intrigued, why objects used for geolocation on the monochrome image in the article and on the colored one from Twitter ( pbs.twimg.com/media/Cx5K2yKXcAEYB9p.jpg ) are not visible on Google Earth at the specified coordinates (48.4698109,39.5966439,537): earth.google.com/web/@48.46980086,39.59687414,169.04286309a,256.28908623d,35y,0h,1.98953951t,0.00000085r/data=CjkaNxIxCgAZ9GZ5wyI8SEAhz-3K017MQ0AqGzQ4wrAyOCcxMS4zIk4gMznCsDM1JzQ3LjkiRRgCIAE

    That’s quite amusing.

    Reply
  6. jeremy

    The soldier walking alongside the tank in the video capture of the “T-90A filmed in eastern Ukraine” — is he wearing a gas mask?

    Reply

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