Russia is sending museum pieces to war, but experts say it may still be effective

(CNN) A tank-loaded freight train rolls by under the crisp spring sun. “Wow,” said one woman, pointing her camera phone at the convoy. “This is the second train, there was a similar one a little earlier.”

The video, apparently filmed in late March, shows old Soviet tanks being transported somewhere in Russia. It is known that Moscow Take out old military equipment from stockpiling to help it pursue the war in Ukraine, but these are different matters.

The tanks are T-55s, a model first commissioned by the Soviet Union’s Red Army in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II.

They are very old, and you can find them in museums.

“This was the first main battle tank used by the Soviet Union in the Cold War era,” historian John Delaney, curator of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in Duxford, Cambridge, showing one, told CNN.

“Up until that point, you had three very distinct types of tanks, light, medium and heavy, which had different roles on the battlefield,” Delaney said. “From the mid-1950s onwards, there was a concept that tried to create a tank that could do a little bit of everything and it became known as a main battle tank.”

For the Red Army, this was the T-55 and its many variants, which later became the most mass-produced tank in the world, with over 100,000 units built. Cheap, reliable, easy to use and easy to maintain, it was a military mainstay from Egypt to China to Sudan, where it is still in use.

Soviet T-54/T-55 tanks form a threatening ring around the parliament buildings in Hungary on November 12, 1956.

In Eastern Europe, they were used to quell uprisings in former Warsaw Pact countries, roaming the streets of Hungary in 1956, and then Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia, in 1968.

But in the decades that followed, when it was deployed against Western-built tanks—in some Arab-Israeli conflicts, and then in the Gulf War—they were no match.

“In the first Gulf War in 1991, for example, American and British tanks were cutting off Iraqi T-55 tanks from a distance of 23 kilometers,” Delaney said.

The version inside IWM’s Land Warfare Hall was built in the 1960s and belonged to the East German Army. They were picked up by the museum after German reunification, where Berlin preferred NATO standard versions, such as the Leopard 1 and then the Leopard 2 – which it recently sent to Ukraine – and the old Soviet equipment.

T-55 tanks roam the streets of Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia, in 1968.

By the time Russia began decommissioning its T-55s in the 1980s, there were still upwards of 28,000 of them, Delaney said, adding that they had been decommissioned rather than scrapped.

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“The Soviets never threw anything,” he explained. “There are likely to be a large number of them sitting in shanties waiting to be remodeled.”

Russia appears ready to do just that.

From storage to the battlefield

Satellite images indicate that Russia has removed dozens of tanks from storage at a base in Arsenyev, in Russia’s far east. Publicly available photos show that one of the tanks stored at the base is a T-55.

“They’ll be sitting there for a decade or more,” Delaney says. “They’re going to need quite a bit of work to get them back to a good operating system.”

A satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows the Arsenyev tank depot prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on April 22, 2021.

A second image from the Maxar satellite shows the Arsenyev Tank Depot on April 21, 2023.

After footage of a train full of tanks emerged on social media in late March, the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a team of volunteers using open-source intelligence to investigate conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, was The first to report These were brought in from T-54/55s from storage at Arsenyev.

Then Western officials told CNN in April that they saw the aging tank appear near the front line.

Russia has not confirmed it is deploying the T-55 to the frontline and Moscow’s Defense Ministry did not respond to CNN’s request for comment. But in recent weeks, well-connected pro-Kremlin bloggers have shared photos showing these tanks reportedly in Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine.

Netherlands-based open-source intelligence website Oryx says it has visual evidence that Russia has lost more than 1,900 tanks since the start of the invasion, nearly two-thirds of the initial fleet of about 3,000. Russian shields removed.

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“Overall, Russia has lost a lot of equipment, and it’s hard to build new equipment,” said Robert Lee, a former US Marine and senior fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“They’re producing some new tanks — they’re still producing T-90s — but, at the (required) scale, they need more equipment than they can produce, so they’re relying on older and older tanks to compensate,” Lee added.

Western sanctions are also slowing Russian arms production, says Trevor Taylor, director of the Defense, Industries and Society Program at the Royal United Services Institute.

“We have ample evidence that Russian industry, which was given access to Western technology in the 1990s, is indeed suffering from the constraints,” Taylor said. “We hear about them taking the chips out of the washing machines. And when you do, you’re obviously in a pretty tough spot.”

Ease of use for recruits

Lee has been following the Russian invasion of Ukraine from the very beginning, using open source technology to gather information about the fighting in Ukraine. He has since visited the front lines in eastern Ukraine, and with Russia still on the defensive, tank-on-tank battles have so far been rare and he believes the T-55’s use will be limited in scope.

“Some of these systems are likely to be used in the backcourt initially,” he said. “So, it’s not necessarily the tanks going forward, but some kind of long-distance shooting.”

If this is their goal, Delaney thinks the T-55 may still be useful.

“One of the things you can obviously use [tank] Because if you’re trying to avoid a tank vs. tank engagement, you have to burrow into defensive positions, sit the tank in the crater so you can see only the turret and then it can be used to defend a front line against a counterattack. He said, “If you’re the aggressor in a war and you’re suddenly on the verge of Being on the defensive, this will be effective for static defensive positions.”

A photo from social media shows a T-55 tank in Zaporizhia, Ukraine.

As Russian forces prepare to take the brunt of a widely anticipated NATO-equipped Ukrainian offensive, they have to rely on a conscript army that is less prepared than the adversary’s.

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And for untrained soldiers, the T-55 provides something Modern tanks Don’t: ease of use.

“If you have a lot of recruits joining your army, which you currently have with the Russian forces, it will be easier and faster to train people to use those than it would be to use a more modern model battle tank,” Delaney said.

“It’s really easy to maintain and with a recruiting army, that’s what you’re looking for, you’re looking for the ability to keep these things up and running.”

Ukraine, in fact, also has a copy of the T-55 in its arsenal – 28 ultra-modern M-55s Submitted by Slovenia.

It’s up to Ukraine

As Ukraine prepares for the counteroffensive expected in the spring, Russia has gone deeper. Satellite images revealed the vast defensive lines that Moscow’s forces have built across the areas they continue to occupy.

Lee believed that a successful counterattack would be down to Ukrainian intelligence finding the perfect location to move forward.

“It’s not impossible, but a lot of it is because Ukraine finds weaknesses in one line and tries to penetrate them narrowly,” he said.

And this is where modern and more advanced NATO equipment, with better armor, longer ranges and greater maneuverability, can come into its own, especially when up against older Soviet hardware.

“I think that in the face of Western weapons, the Russians must expect very heavy losses if they expect to move forward with the T-55,” Taylor said. “It is a desperate move to use such old-fashioned weapons.”

And although tank battles are rare, Ukraine has the advantage if they do happen.

“If you have a big open country and you’re fighting a big engagement with armored tanks over large swaths of land, that’s going to be at a huge disadvantage,” Delaney said of the Russian T-55s.

“(against Leopard or Challenger), if it’s a one-on-one tank engagement, he loses this one every time.”

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