Murphy's Law: Armored Orphans Of Rural Russia

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September 19, 2021: Recently a Russian blogger displayed photos of the equipment of a self-propelled artillery battalion left unattended in a field near a railroad station. The weapons are 2S19 152mm self-propelled guns, which are the standard self-propelled artillery for the Russian army. The battalion was apparently part of a recent mobilization exercise that moved a lot of combat vehicles to locations near the eastern Ukraine border as part of an effort to persuade Ukraine to negotiate a favorable (for Russia) settlement to the stalemated 2014 Russian effort to seize two Ukrainian provinces. The Ukrainians responded more energetically to the attempted takeover than Russia expected and there has been a stalemate ever since.

The seemingly abandoned artillery battalion is probably one of the many victims of a shortage of Russian railroad flatcars. This shortage is made worse when the government carries out one of these mobilization exercises because the railroads are state-owned and run by a paramilitary organization that exists to follow orders instantly and without question. That does not always work, especially in peacetime when such mobilizations hurt the economy. Russia depends on the railroads because there are few highways. People living where the untended artillery battalion sits in the open hope it is temporary. That’s because since the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, abandoned armored vehicles, warplanes and ships have become a local problem in many parts of Russia. A lot of the abandoned gear was Cold War era surplus the government could not or would not deal with. There is less of this now, but it still happens. The unattended 2S19 battalion near the Ukraine border may be waiting to be moved to the Belarus border, where another massive concentration of troops and equipment is planned, to support an ally rather than threaten a less-cooperative one.

The 2S19 entered service in 1989 and was in production from until 2019 with over 1,100 built. A thousand were delivered to Russian forces while over a hundred were exported to seven countries. A replacement has been developed but there is less demand for this type of vehicle as more nations, including Russia, adopt GPS guided rockets. As a recent design, 2S19s contain a lot of valuable components that can be easily removed and sold to black market traders. Getting caught looting a military vehicle results in some severe penalties. There are criminal gangs that specialize in this sort of thing and it may be some time before it becomes known if these unattended vehicles did suffer from looters. Russian media does not report such things and even Russian bloggers rarely report this openly because that recently became a crime.

A lot of bad news is reported. For example, a decade ago Russia planned to spend $650 billion to modernize their armed forces by 2020. This was part of a dramatic effort to permanently cut the Russian military loose from their Cold War past. This required scrapping over 10 million tons of obsolete weapons, including over 20,000 tanks, over 100,000 other armored vehicles and artillery, hundreds of ships and thousands of aircraft. During the 1990s, this stuff was just left to rot in open fields, remote airbases and dingy corners of ports and naval bases. After 2000, Russia spent about fifty million dollars a year providing some security, and minimal upkeep for much of this stuff. For a long time, there was the hope that the abandoned weapons might be useful if there was another major war. By 2010 it was clear that there would never be enough active-duty troops to operate the abandoned gear. After the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia was still around after losing half its population but with a growing list of debts. In the 1990s there was not enough cash to maintain a million active duty military personnel, which was a fifth of what the Soviet Union military had. The 14 new nations created when the Soviet Union fell apart also inherited a lot of Soviet weapons but Russia got most of them as well as most of the Soviet era high command. These generals and admirals opposed writing off most of these weapons and wasted a lot of money in a failed attempt to safeguard and maintain more of this old gear than they really needed. After 2000 it was agreed that what could not be used had to be disposed of. More than half the equipment to be scrapped was considered obsolete (by Russian standards). Nearly all of it is considered obsolete by Western standards. The rest of the world has picked over this pile of Cold War surplus since 1991 and bought what they thought might be useful. That made hardly a dent in the pile of abandoned weapons and equipment.

In addition to the hardware, there are millions of tons of Soviet era munitions that must be dismantled and disposed of. The explosives and rocket propellant in these devices must be carefully deactivated (or just blown up). This is an expensive process, and the government estimated that it would cost billions of dollars to get it done.

The Russians know it is possible to carry out such a huge and complex disposal effort because since 1991 they have been monitoring a small firm in Germany that has dismantled, for scrap and spare parts, over 14,000 armored vehicles. Most were tanks and armored personnel carriers, and about half the vehicles were from the former East German Army, whose armored vehicles were Russian designs usually manufactured in Russia. This force, and all its Russian equipment, became surplus when the two Germanys merged in 1990. The West German Army had nearly 10,000 armored vehicles, and most of these have been scrapped because of the end of the Cold War in 1991 and a disarmament treaty (Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, or CFE) that limited the number of armored vehicles Russia and Western nations could maintain in Europe. While Western nations scrapped lots of gear to get down to the treaty limits, and replaced some of it with new stuff, Russia moved their surplus gear further east, beyond the "treaty line."

While most of the German scrap metal went into the furnace to be recycled, many engines were sold off as spare parts for remaining vehicles of the same type, or for other uses. Some of the steel is very high quality, and was melted down for industrial and consumer items that require quality steel. Also removed and sorted were other types of metal, like copper. Many automotive and electrical components were also removed intact for reuse.

The work was monitored by Russian CFE inspectors, and photo satellites, to ensure that combat vehicles were destroyed. It takes 2-3 days to take apart a tank. Some components must be cut into pieces that will fit into the furnace. No special tools are required for disassembly, just a lot of hard work. The firm doing all the work was called, not surprisingly, the Battle Tank Dismantling Corporation. It was located 300 kilometers southwest of Berlin. Russia took note and planned to establish several similar Russian dismantling operations, to take apart and melt down the Cold War weapons once and for all.

Germany had the cash and determination to rid themselves of all these rusting reminders of the Cold War. Russia was broke and less bothered by all those decaying reminders of when Russia, as the Soviet Union, was a superpower that could man and maintain that many weapons. Not all Russians agree with that, especially in areas with more people, like the railroad station near the Ukraine border.

 


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