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A frontline shadow economy: Ukrainian units trade tanks and artillery

The Ukrainian military still relies heavily on arms and vehicles captured from their better-equipped Russian foe for the material needed to wage war

The Ukrainian sergeant slid the captured Russian rocket launcher into the centre of a small room. He was pleased. The weapon was practically brand-new. It had been built in 2020, and its thermobaric warhead was deadly against troops and armoured vehicles.

But the sergeant, nicknamed Zmei, had no plans to fire it at advancing Russian soldiers or at a tank trying to burst through his unit’s front line in eastern Ukraine.

Instead, he was going to use it as a bargaining chip.

Within the 93rd Mechanized Brigade, Zmei was not just a lowly sergeant. He was the brigade’s point man for a wartime bartering system among Ukrainian forces. Prevalent along the front line, the exchange operates like a kind of shadow economy, soldiers say, in which units acquire weapons or equipment and trade them for supplies they need urgently.

Most of the bartering involves items captured from Russian troops. Ukrainian soldiers refer to them as “trophies.”

“Usually, the trades are done really fast,” Zmei said last week during an interview in Ukraine’s mineral-rich Donbas region, where the 93rd is now stationed. “Let’s just call it a simplification of bureaucracy.”

Despite the influx of Western weapons and equipment in recent months, the Ukrainian military still relies heavily on arms and vehicles captured from their better-equipped Russian foe for the material needed to wage war; much of Ukraine’s aging Soviet-era arsenal is either destroyed, worn down or lacks ammunition.

That has left Ukrainian soldiers scrounging the battlefield for essentials as their own supply lines are strained. And the relatively small numbers of big-ticket foreign weapons, such as the US-made M777 howitzer, are spread thinly on the sprawling 1,500-mile front.

“We have hopes for Kyiv,” said Fedir, one of the brigade’s supply sergeants and an understudy of Zmei, referring to military commanders in the capital. “But we rely on ourselves. We aren’t trying to just sit and wait like idiots until Kyiv sends us something.”

To protect against reprisals, Zmei, Fedir and others interviewed for this article requested that only their given names or nicknames be used.

The Ukrainian military did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the equipment exchanges.

Capturing Russian items has become increasingly difficult as the war moves into a more static phase, with Russia’s grinding artillery war forcing Ukrainians to slowly retreat in the east, while trying to regain territory in the south. That has created even higher demand for items traded on the soldiers’ underground exchange.

Such was the case in early May, when the 93rd — a renowned unit that had fought in almost every major battle of the war — was operating around the Russian-occupied city of Izium. Zmei, who before the war owned a small publishing house that specialised in dark fantasy novels, received an innocuous text message from a nearby Ukrainian commander.

“Hi,” the message read. “Listen, here’s the thing, we have a needless tank, a T-72 a bit damaged.”

“And we’d exchange it for something nice,” the commander added.

The series of text messages, sent over the messaging application Telegram and reviewed by The New York Times, is just one example of the type of equipment that is unofficially swapping hands.

The commander’s requests were modest: a transport truck and a couple of sniper rifles in return for the Russian trophy tank. But Zmei told his customer, “This is too few things for a tank, write down what else you need.” The commander responded that he had plenty of tanks and wanted only the items requested.

When the commander mentioned all the tanks in his unit’s possession, Zmei sensed an opportunity to expand the trade. He wanted more tanks, and noted that the 93rd had foreign-supplied anti-tank missiles and US portable surface-to-air missile systems available for a swap.

“Can get the launchers for a Stinger, NLAWs, various large stuff for a trade — and a lot of that,” Zmei said, referring to some of the Western weapons, which cost tens of thousands of dollars apiece.

Of the more than half-dozen soldiers interviewed for this article, most said that this underground economy was driven by the need to survive. Sometimes, they said, that meant circumventing a clumsy bureaucracy.

Although soldiers said that they were supposed to send captured equipment up the supply chain back to Kyiv, they noted that there was little effort to investigate the underground exchanges, let alone punish anyone for doing it. -- New York Times

Thomas Gibbons-Neff

The writer is the Kabul bureau chief and a former Marine infantryman

Natalia Yermak

The writer is part of the NYT team after the Ukraine war began

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