(Near Kurakhove) In a frozen field in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, a Ukrainian T-64 tank emerges from a camouflage net, turning snow to mud under its tracks.
Since the start of the Russian invasion nearly a year ago, these old, often rusting Soviet-era devices have led Ukraine’s response against forces in Moscow, directly targeting enemy positions a short distance away. or much deeper behind their lines.
Igor Khonko, the 26-year-old gunner of the T-64 crew, has no doubts about the key role played since the beginning of the conflict by the 1D Tank brigade to which he belongs.
“For me, I see this war more as a war of artillery and heavy weapons, not infantry,” he told AFP, as the thud of nearby guns rips through the morning air. cold.
“Of course, there are infantry fights, but the main thing is artillery, tanks and air power,” said the young man.
“I think the tide of the war will be changed when we receive heavy weapons: tanks, armored personnel carriers and long-range rockets,” he continued, as the Russian assaults redoubled in intensity in east of the country in recent days.
After long prevarication for fear of provoking an escalation of the conflict, the West finally agreed to send modern tanks to Ukraine, German-designed Leopards, American Abrams and British Challengers.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky presented the delivery of these tanks as “an important step for the final victory”.
But for Igor Khonko, these new tanks will not arrive soon enough and the most urgent need, according to him, is to quickly have a new stock of ammunition.
“Right now we’re short on shells. At certain places on the front, tanks are used more than artillery,” he regrets.
“It can happen that you fire 28 shells in 10 minutes… So once you’re done, you have to go back and get more. “, he explains.
His old T-64, made 24 years before he was born, shows its limits every day: shells get stuck during loading, there are oil leaks and the engine can suddenly stop, requiring emergency repairs. .
A sign of the advanced age of these tanks, his colleague Volodymyr, 57, started driving them in the mid-1980s, when he was then in the Soviet army. Despite some modifications, the gears haven’t changed much since then.
The 50-year-old carpenter by profession, who refused to give his surname, enlisted after the invasion on February 24, 2022, again as a tank driver.
It deftly maneuvers the 38-tonne machine through the countryside at speeds of up to 50 km/h, with a deafening roar and a haze of smoke spitting from its diesel engine.
“We need tanks because we don’t have any new ones,” Volodymyr explains, after shutting down his engine.
With older models, “one thing breaks, then another, then another. We need tanks. [Les nouveaux] have better weapons. They don’t break,” he says.
Igor Khonko, he is eager to be trained in the use of new Western models, even if he has only ever seen on the internet the M1 Abrams promised by the United States.
“Firing ability and damage caused [à l’ennemi] are much higher with a modern tank. The shielding is better, so the crew is better protected”, he lists.
“The Abrams have the best armor in the world. The Russians say they won’t be suited to this terrain, but it will be fine,” he says confidently.
A year ago, the young man would never have imagined having to spend his life on the front line of Donbass, entrenched to shelter from the biting cold and Russian shells, with the only company of his comrades and an adopted cat.
He says he fears for his parents’ safety if Russia steps up its attacks as the first anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict approaches
But with new supplies of ammunition and heavy weapons, he hopes that Ukraine will be able in the coming months to recover territories captured by Russian forces.
His contract ended in September, but he stayed. “When there is a war, you cannot leave,” he said. “I don’t think I would be able to quit anyway, because I couldn’t sit at home.”
Volodymyr hopes for the end of the war, the safe return of his only son to the front line and, perhaps like the aging T-64, retirement.