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The T-90M Is Stuck In A Hard War

January 21, 2023
A smouldering T-90M filmed using a drone in mid-January. Via social media.

Perceptions of Russian military technology have nosedived since Moscow launched its ruinous invasion of Ukraine last year. But the struggle to change and shape these same perceptions is constant. With the war set to grind on for the rest of 2023 the belligerents are busy deconstructing the mythology around each other’s equipment: the Russian-made T-90M Proryv, sometimes referred to as Proryv-3, has taken a particular beating on and off the battlefield. Although it’s the best protected main battle tank in service with the Russian Army a growing digital trail of “open source” footage has tarnished its reputation.

The very first T-90M lost in Ukraine was recorded last May when the fighting shifted to the south and east of the country. The brand new tank was eliminated with a direct hit to its engine compartment and the wreckage was shared across social media and online news. Later that month Uralvagonzavod, the manufacturer of the T-90M tank, published a heartwarming video clip where art prepared by schoolchildren along with commemorative cards were left inside newly assembled T-90M’s that were loaded on a train. This specific video had 10 covered T-90M’s blessed by a priest and delivered to the army. Russian and Ukrainian propaganda surrounding the T-90M serve competing purposes. For Russia and its state-owned arms industry the core message is how their advanced weapon systems are being readied for the war regardless of external pressure (like sanctions) and footage of equipment losses in combat. Ukraine’s approach is straightforward by comparison. The point is to advertise how capable their soldiers are, justifying future support from NATO, and the inadequacy of Russian equipment.

A newly assembled T-90M shown in a video clip from May 2022. Via Uralvagonzavod.

Since May at least 12 individual losses of T-90M’s were recorded by Ukrainian sources and published as “open source intelligence” on social media. Two were lost in May and the Russians lost at least one each month–either abandoned or disabled–from July until November. Two were lost in December last year and so far two were lost in January, 2023. Of this number two functional T-90M’s were captured and one is in service as the most advanced battle tank fielded by Ukraine. Additional T-90M losses have been recorded but these are suspect for three reasons: First, the quality of the image or footage is low. Second, the footage or image doesn’t show wreckage or the tank’s destruction. Third, the purported authors are spreading disinformation on video sharing platforms.

Russian propaganda ignored this public record and thanks to a rich network combining official news media and anonymous bloggers a competing record was built up showing T-90M’s reaching Ukraine. The events depicted in this propaganda are factual as multiple T-90M’s have been filmed, whether by drones or bystanders or mainstream journalists, in combat near the cities of Svatove and Luhansk. Other individual T-90M’s took part in the fighting around Bakhmut and Mar’inka/Maryinka in late 2022. These are corroborated by Ukrainian combat footage of their troops engaging T-90M’s. Videos and news clips of T-90M’s reaching Ukraine increased since October last year. Last December a news clip in the city of Luhansk showed T-90M’s being delivered to Russian units stationed there. It was claimed on social media that 200 tanks reached the city but the actual news clip showed just five T-90M’s carried by semi-trailers.

A completed T-90M hull with a young fir tree “planted” on its roof. This was published by Uralvagonzavod on January 13 to welcome the start of the new year.

But Russian propaganda has churned out enough evidence that Uralvagonzavod is running an active production line of T-90M’s. From September 2022 until January 2023 as many as 66 individual T-90M’s appeared on various Russian news and “open source” media. (In late December a Russian-affiliated Scottish journalist shared footage of a train delivering 15 T-90M tanks along with 8 T-72B3M tanks and 14 T-62M tanks.) On the eve of the Russian new year on January 13 a video clip published by Uralvagonzavod showed a completed T-90M hull, missing its wheels and engine, with a fir tree stuck on its roof. The tongue-in-cheek production was just a commercial for the tank to mark the holiday. (See photo above.)

This Russian media campaign focused on its premium battle tank did succeed in debunking an enemy narrative. Since the war began Ukrainian officials and news agencies circulated the claim that Russia’s main tank factory Uralvagonzavod ceased production after its supply chain was disrupted. It turns out this originated with the Ukrainian defense ministry and it was spread through news websites for it to go viral and influence perceptions of the war. As early as January 2022 even Russian media reported that 400 new combat vehicles were due for the army. It looks like these pre-war contracts were fulfilled on schedule and another large order is being prepared.

The T-90M’s combat performance in Ukraine is subpar for obvious reasons. Ukrainian propaganda is keen to ridicule the threat it poses and the tank’s mission is a hard one. As with other tanks used in the theater it’s employed as artillery and as fire support for small unit advances in a rigid frontline stretching almost a thousand kilometers. The density of terrain obstacles, urban ruins, and fortifications makes it impractical for the T-90M to manifest its namesake as a “Proryv” or breakthrough tank. As far as the “open source” data goes, however, the Russian army has lost only a few T-90M’s compared with the numbers they now deploy, which can reach at least a hundred with more to come. With the conclusion of the war a distant prospect the T-90M Proryvs fielded by the Russians must suffer all their growing pains in a vast and miserable theater.

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