Donetsk.- With a face of contentment, Ukrainian sergeant slides captured Russian rocket launcher into center of small room, Created in 2020, the gun is brand new“Almost new,” and its thermobaric warhead is lethal to soldiers and armor alike.
But the sergeant nicknamed Zmi has no intention of launching it at Russian troops or tanks to sabotage his unit’s front line in eastern Ukraine. On the contrary, he intends to use it as a bargaining chip.
In the 93rd. Mechanized Brigade, Zami is not just a sergeant: he is the designated officer of his unit To manage the war barter system operated between Ukrainian forces. Soldiers say these exchanges work one way parallel economy informal market In the front lines, where weapons or equipment captured by combat units are exchanged for material they urgently need.
vast majority of trades The “trophies” taken from the Russian army are fromAs Ukrainian soldiers call them.
,In general, they are exchanges that are done quickly.”, says Zemei from the current position of his brigade, in the Ukrainian region of the Donbass. “Suppose it’s a way to simplify the bureaucracy.”
Despite the influx of Western weapons and equipment in recent months, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been able to wage this war. They rely heavily on the weapons and armor they hold from their better equipped Russian enemySince most of the Soviet-era Ukrainian arsenal has already been destroyed, worn out, or spare parts are missing.
So when they have problems with their supply lines, Ukrainian soldiers “carton” the battlefield in search of basic elements to continue fighting. And relatively short supplies of large foreign weapons – such as the American-built M777 howitzer – are scattered along the 1,500-mile front line.
“We trust Kyiv, but we trust ourselves more,” says Fedir, a grounded subordinate who also handles supplies for his brigade, referring to military commanders who run the war from the Ukrainian capital. “We’re not going to sit idly by like idiots until Kyiv can send us something.To avoid retaliation, Zami, Fedir and other soldiers asked in interviews to mention only their surnames.
In this regard consulted, the Armed Forces of Ukraine did not comment on the exchange of these equipment.
But now that the war is in a stable phase, Russian equipment is becoming more and more difficult to capture. With its relentless artillery fire, Russia is forcing Ukrainians to retreat east, as well as regaining lost ground in the south of the country. that is the situation increased the demand for products in that underground market manifold which is handled by the soldiers.
The same thing happened in early May, when on 93. The Mechanized Brigade—a highly regarded unit that has fought almost every major battle in this war—was operating near the Russian-occupied city of Izium. Sergeant Zami, who owned a small publishing house specializing in the genre before the war imagination, received an insignificant message from a Ukrainian commander stationed nearby. “Look, here we have a half-damaged T-72 tank that we don’t need,” the message said.
,We would like to exchange it for something that suits us”, added the commander.
Those message threads are transmitted through the Telegram application and are just one example of the type of weapon that informally changes hands.
The request of the commander in question was modest: a transport truck and some sniper rifles in return. A half-broken Russian “trophy” tank. In a burst of business integrity, Zami told his client that “it was too little for a tank,” and asked him to add a few more to the list. The commander replied that he had spare tanks and was only needed.
When the commander noted all the tanks in his unit’s possession, Zami saw an opportunity to widen the exchange. It didn’t want just one tank, it wanted several, and in return it could offer foreign-made anti-tank missiles and American man-portable air defense systems.
“I can get you Stinger missile launchers, NLAWs, and various heavy artillery pieces, and lots of them.Zami told them, reviewing these Western supplied weapons, which cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Almost all soldiers interviewed for this article say that That secret market arose out of a need to survive. And sometimes, they say, the only way to survive is to dodge the bureaucracy.
Although the soldiers believe that it is believed that They should send the captured teams to Kyiv In the supply chain, he says, no one has made much effort to investigate covert trades, let alone punish those who do them.
the governments of westwho have helped Ukraine with military equipment worth billions of dollars, Putting pressure on the government of Kyiv to protect the distribution process from possible diversion or acts of corruptionBut so far no cases of weapons exhaustion have been reported except for other Ukrainian units.
But allowing the transfer of arms informally brings its own problems.
Matt Schroeder, a researcher with the Small Arms Survey Organization, says that the informal transfer of munitions between units “could undermine the mechanisms of arsenal management”, but he “These exchanges do not imply that there is smuggling or diversion of arms.”
Sitting beside the turret of a Russian Model T-80 tank, a Ukrainian soldier named Alex explains to send captured equipment to Kyiv for official records. a real problem.
“For starters, there is no guarantee that it will be returned to us,” Alex says. “So we fix each other.”
Formerly a software engineer in the city of Kharkiv, the second largest in Ukraine, Alex is a celebrity in the 93rd Mechanized Brigade: at the beginning of the war, already in command of his T-80 captured from the Russians and which he Baptized ” Bunny”, Alex destroyed several enemy tanks around Izium and the northeastern city of Sumy.
But now the tank is far from the front and is waiting to repair its turret. Alex says that the repair work and spare parts were paid for, with a 120 mm mortar and a heavy machine gun delivered to another unit.
,We’re fighting everything we grabbed from the enemy”, says Bogdan, the commander in charge of the battalion where Alex works, and explains that 80% of its current supply comes from captured Russian equipment.
“And it is the same in all battalions”, concluded Bogdan.
by Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermaki
Jaime Arrambide. translation by