Russia boasted of blowing up an advanced Ukrainian tank. Video shows it was a tractor
A grainy black-and-white gun-sight video Russia released this week to bolster a claim that its military blew up some of Ukraine’s most fearsome tanks actually documented the destruction of a tractor, according to a visual analysis by the Associated Press.
The Russian Embassy in Washington announced Monday on Twitter that Moscow’s forces had “annihilated” eight German-made Leopard tanks, among the most advanced and powerful equipment that NATO countries have provided to Ukraine. The Russian Ministry of Defense then posted a video Tuesday on Telegram with text saying that it showed “footage of the destruction of foreign armored vehicles, including Leopard tanks.”
The video was shown extensively by Russian state-controlled broadcasters and news sites, which said it was recorded from the thermal-imaging system of a KA-52 Alligator attack helicopter. Several black silhouettes of vehicles can be seen before the helicopter launches a guided missile that strikes one, causing it to explode. “Direct hit!” a voice on the recording says in Russian.
Germany announced earlier this year that it would send 18 Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, which hopes to receive around 100 tanks in all from various NATO countries over the next year. The Leopard 2 is one of the most maneuverable and heavily armored battle tanks in the world, featuring a 120-millimeter gun capable of slicing through Russia’s Soviet-era tanks from more than 2½ miles away, according to its manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann.
Ukrainian officials declined to comment this week on whether any of their Leopard tanks have been used in battle.
Almost immediately after the Russian video spread online, multiple weapons experts and military bloggers posting on social media began casting doubt that the helicopter’s missile struck a tank at all, much less a Leopard.
The visual analysis by the AP shows that the vehicles seen in the video, which was recorded at night, appear to be large pieces of stationary farm machinery parked in a field — specifically, a self-propelled sprayer and two combines used to harvest corn and wheat.
Before-and-after images show a dam that collapsed Tuesday causing flooding and devastation in southern Ukraine.
The vehicle struck by the Russian missile has four large wheels and sits high off the ground. Leopard 2 tanks are low-slung and have treads, like a bulldozer.
The Russian Embassy also claimed this week that its forces had destroyed three French-made AMX-10 light tanks, which do have wheels. But the AMX-10 has six wheels, not four.
The silhouette of the vehicle destroyed in the video appears to more closely match a self-propelled sprayer, a type of specialized tractor common on modern farms.
Thermal-imaging systems like that on the Russian helicopter detect sources of heat to target enemy tanks and trucks in smoky or low-light conditions. The stationary vehicles in the video appear black, meaning their engines were cold.
As anticipation builds for a counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces are desperate to lay their hands on Western tanks that could help turn the war’s tide.
Tank crews operating at the front lines typically conceal themselves in vegetation or behind buildings, emerging only to move and shoot, two experts in military vehicles told the AP. It would be highly unusual for tanks to be parked in the open, where they make easy targets for enemy gunners, they said.
The two experts, after watching the Russian video, said the vehicle struck by the helicopter’s missile was not a Leopard tank nor any other type of armored vehicle.
“The silhouette of that particular vehicle or object did not look commensurate with what I’d be expecting for a Leopard tank,” said George Barros, who leads the Geospatial Intelligence Team for Russia and Ukraine at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. “I agree ... that it was probably a piece of heavy farm equipment.”
Valentin Chatelet, a research associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, also said the objects in the video were clearly not Leopard tanks.
“They are pointing their thermal camera at three vehicles that appear to be harvesters,” said Chatelet, who is based in Brussels. “And the first target they’re hitting is most likely a sprayer.”
Though both Ukraine and Russia have at various times sought to downplay their battlefield losses, the analysts said the Russian military was particularly notorious for making claims of great victories later proven to be false.
“If you follow what they post and what they claim, you will find that they’ve been outrageously wrong about a variety of different things, be it weapons systems hit that had never been delivered into the theater or official announcements of the Russians capturing particular villages or settlements multiple consecutive times without ever having gotten there in the first place,” Barros said.
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