The Ukrainian Mechanics Who Fix Tanks at the War’s Frontline

by Pelican Press
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A battered worker’s van whizzed back and forth along a village road near the front line in southern Ukraine, searching. It screeched to a halt, and three men unloaded heavy equipment and disappeared into the undergrowth.

What they were looking for, dug in and hidden under the trees, were three hulking British-made armored vehicles known as Mastiffs. Supplied to the Ukrainian Army for its attempt to retake Russian-occupied territory in southern Ukraine, the Mastiffs were in need of a service.

“They call us the dog handlers,” Serhii Ivanov, the leader of the maintenance team, joked, referring to a nickname that came about because many of the armored vehicles they service were named after breeds of dogs: Mastiffs, Huskies, Wolfhounds.

Behind the thousands of Ukrainian troops assembled along the 100-mile front line for the counteroffensive is a small army of mechanics, engineers and weapon technicians responsible for keeping Ukraine’s growing fleet of Western-made tanks, armored vehicles and other equipment in working order.

They work in forest camps or in disused buildings a few miles from the front line, or as mobile breakdown teams, taking their services to military units where they are deployed to avoid towing equipment on long journeys back to base or even to factories abroad.

“Vehicles are needed at the front now, and this way allows us to get them back quickly to the front line,” said Maj. Valerii Shershen, head of communications at the Ukrainian logistics command. Quoting Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, he added, “Infantry wins battles, logistics wins wars.”

Not unlike combat medics who risk their lives daily to bring out the wounded, mechanics have been venturing onto the battlefield, navigating minefields and shell fire, to retrieve and repair broken down or bombed-out vehicles.

One deputy battalion commander spoke of at least six mechanics from his unit who had been killed in recent months.

Mr. Ivanov was head of the technical department at Mitsubishi Motors Ukraine until he left his job and “nice office” in the capital, Kyiv, to join the territorial defense force when Russia invaded 16 months ago.

He served as a platoon commander for months until the army’s logistics command plucked him out of the trenches to help maintain the growing number of NATO vehicles supplied to Ukraine, many of them equipped with sophisticated electronics and diagnostics.

Since it began in early June, Ukraine’s counteroffensive has suffered heavy casualties, with scores of vehicles damaged and destroyed on dense minefields and under heavy aerial and artillery bombardment.

The losses have been a severe blow to Ukraine and have forced the military command to adjust its tactics. In the meantime, mechanics and engineers have been racing to retrieve the wrecked NATO vehicles, as well as captured Russian equipment, to get them back up and working.

In a forest camp belonging to the 37th Marine Brigade recently, not far from the front line, battle-scarred vehicles awaiting repair were tucked under trees and draped in camouflage netting.

“We were ready for damaged equipment — it’s war,” said Ihor, 57, deputy commander of weapons and maintenance, who uses the call sign Blago and gave only his first name for security reasons.

He walked a team of journalists from The New York Times around the camp, which was divided into separate areas for repairing armored vehicles, tanks and artillery pieces. There was also a testing track.

Some of the vehicles were beyond repair, their wheels and engines mangled from mine explosions and their bodies ripped open by rocket and artillery fire. But Ihor said that his teams had managed to repair over 40 NATO armored vehicles and eight tanks in the camp in the past month, often taking parts from destroyed ones.

“We try to reuse everything,” he said. He came to an American-made Oshkosh armored vehicle that had been burned out. “We can’t fix it,” he noted, “but it will become a donor — its parts will allow us to repair another seven vehicles.”

The Ukrainian forces have by necessity made use of captured Russian armor and weaponry. In one yard, the head of weapons and maintenance for the 35th Marine Brigade, who uses the call sign Hammer, said that the brigade had captured more than 20 Russian vehicles in the past six weeks of fighting.

Among the “trophies” were eight Russian multipurpose fighting vehicles, which the brigade had never had before, and a T-72 tank. “Without the Russian captured vehicles, we would not manage to keep going,” he said.

Yet Ukrainian troops have started to appreciate the protection afforded by the strong armor of the various NATO vehicles, which saves more lives than the old Soviet equipment, Hammer and other mechanics said. Even when soldiers and marines took heavy casualties in recent battles in the counteroffensive, a lot of them survived inside the NATO vehicles, marines said.

Critically, the swift repairs were keeping the NATO vehicles in use, Hammer said.

“The Russians can’t understand what’s going on,” he said. “A few days and the vehicle is back on the battlefield. In this way, they become indestructible.”

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