Inside the secret tank repair battalion near Ukraine's front lines

Old tanks play a critical role in Ukraine's battle against Russia, and a tank gunner is putting faith in repairs as they wait for better NATO tanks.
Posted at 8:34 PM, Feb 21, 2023

Ukraine's stop gap strategy is simple: Fix the armored vehicles you've got, and get them back into battle.

It takes a lot of work to keep Soviet-era workhorses of Ukraine's armored divisions in the fight.

"They are old; it's no secret," says Roman Batsenko. "They need repair and good handling."

Batsenko is a gunner with the Ukraine army's 3rd Tank unit, known as the Iron Brigade. His call-sign is "Lion" because...

"I was born in August," he said. "I also have a lion tattoo from before the war, and, well, it's my character."

Before the war, Lion worked for 15 years for the railway. Now, after a year of fighting, tanks are his identity.

"The tank is primarily needed for the infantry," he said. "Cover, deliver, evacuate the infantry. Tanks are necessary, and the more the better."

Major tank battles with the Russians loom, while the location of Ukraine's tanks — even while under repair — is top secret.

The coming weeks of the war while the ground is still frozen will likely be a game of tanks and, for Ukraine, a game of waiting for better, faster, safer western tanks to arrive, including British Challengers, German Leopards and American M1 Abrams models.

The tanks Ukraine is currently using are different than ones coming from NATO countries.

"They were produced in the USSR, and there were problems with safety," Lion said. "Our ammunition is under us."

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But Lion won't be upgrading to a Leopard. He'll stick to his T-72B, battle-scarred and tested.

"We had a fight. Our tank was hit seven times, but we held on," Lion said, recalling a battle in a village in the Kharkiv region a few months ago. "But when a mine flew into the engine, the tank caught fire. I pulled the commander and mechanic out of the tank. I saved their lives, and we walked back. But before that, I managed to destroy three enemy tanks and several armored vehicles. Such a beautiful story with a beautiful ending."

For his valor, his commander presented him with a Ukrainian medal of courage.

Lion says being in a tank battle with Russians is all about their mentality.

"The battle itself is going on 10 to 15 minutes," he said. "The main thing is to be focused, trust each other, and then everything will be fine."

He says they also need to trust their tank — that it won't break down in battle. For that, there is an entire battalion of the Iron Brigade devoted to repairs. Olersandr Dereka is the commander.

"We already had this tank under repair. We sent it a couple of days ago, and it broke down again," Dereka said.

Dereka allowed Scripps News a point of view from the driver's seat, to take in how old the controls are, the small window size and how tight the confines are. The two other crew members, the gunner and the tank's commander, also work in coffin-like conditions.

Dereka says he feels responsible for the people who use the tanks.

"We know all the mechanics, drivers, crews we serve," Dereka said.

And the Russian offensive is making the job even harder and more dangerous.

"There is always danger," Lion said. "We came here and are working to destroy the Russians, to free ourselves from the invaders. This is our job. We protect our motherland. In this war, it's always dangerous."

And with that, Lion was already headed back to the front line.

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