Ukrainians Citizens Are Taking It Upon Themselves To Capture Russian Military Vehicles (Updated)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may only be on its sixth day, but it’s already producing a flurry of accounts of Ukrainian soldiers and citizens alike defying the odds and standing up to their would-be occupiers. On the military side, stand-out stories so far have included the heroically futile defense of Snake Island and the mythic fighter ace known as the Ghost of Kyiv. Civilians who have grabbed headlines include Sunflower Woman, Ukrainian Tank Man, and now, a string of anonymous citizens who’ve apparently commandeered abandoned Russian military vehicles. To first get up to date on our most recent past coverage of the fighting so far, click here.

In the last few days, videos of these incidents have contributed to something of a social media phenomenon, one that’s also reflecting some of the surprising setbacks the Russian military is facing in a conflict that many had expected would be extremely one-sided. As it is, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have combined successes on the battlefield with a well-orchestrated public relations campaign that typically sets their ingenuity and heroism against the hapless Russian invaders. Though there are no clear indications one way or the other that any of this has been scripted, there are obvious propaganda and morale-boosting benefits from publicizing this imagery.

A Russian 2S3 Akatsiya self-propelled artillery piece collides with a tree.

In this way, we have seen losses of Russian armor and aircraft stack up, each of them well documented by the Ukrainian authorities and pro-Ukrainian accounts for social media consumption. Video and photos show columns of Russian vehicles laid waste by Ukrainian TB2 drones, stuck in the mud, knocked out by missile-armed teams, or left stranded after running out of fuel as part of the logistic logjam facing the invading forces. All these have already become potent symbols of the conflict, although it’s the apparent lack of planning in terms of supply lines that has probably been most surprising.

As part of the fast-moving ground war, Russian weapons and vehicles are increasingly ending up in the hands of the Ukrainians, some of whom appear to be taking matters into their own hands and towing away a variety of armor and other fighting vehicles.

Very little is known in the way of background to these incidents. Popularly, it’s been widely suggested that Ukrainian farmers, in particular, have been towing these Russian vehicles away, based on the very obvious use of agricultural tractors as prime-movers.

What’s not clear is to what degree these are civilians are acting on their own initiative, or whether they are moving captured or disabled vehicles on behalf of the Ukrainian Armed Forces or relevant local organizations. It’s also possible that the Ukrainian Armed Forces themselves are making use of civilian tractors to move captured vehicles, freeing up military vehicles for more important tasks.

It’s important to note that the armed forces of Russia and Ukraine share much equipment in common, with certain specific types used by both armies, as well as other vehicles and kit that are broadly similar. That provides the opportunity for Ukraine to press into service various items of captured Russian materiel, including the BTR-82A wheeled armored personnel carrier seen below.

At the same time, this commonality does raise the very real risk of certain vehicles commandeered by civilians being misidentified as Russian-operated. On the other hand, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have previously issued warnings that Russian forces might attempt to infiltrate into areas of Ukraine by driving captured Ukrainian vehicles.

A screenshot of a Tweet from an official Ukrainian military account warning about Russian forces attempting to infiltrate into certain areas by flying Ukrainian flags and displaying other symbols., via Twitter

Hopefully, as time goes on, we will get a bit more background as to how these various incidents of Russian vehicles in apparently civilian hands came to pass. 

In the meantime, here’s a selection of those that have been identified so far:

A Russian 9K35 Strela-10 (SA-13 Gopher) short-range surface-to-air missile system towed by a tractor:

As an interesting aside to all of this, Russian influencer and mechanic Nastya Tyman, who you can follow here, has gone viral with a video providing basic instructions for civilians who happen upon an abandoned, but driveable BTR-series APC. Tyman made this video last year to mark Defender of the Fatherland Day, but reposted it on February 27 with a reworked introduction that seems very likely to be referencing the conflict in Ukraine and all the abandoned armored vehicles that have been spotted there.

“If you come across a free or abandoned BTR, here’s a lifehack how to get it started,” a caption to the new version of the video says as Tyman gleefully shows viewers around the controls of the armored vehicle. Whether or not this was simply done to capitalize on the current situation or for some other reason, like a form of indirect protest against the invasion.

For many observers, the still-young conflict in Ukraine has so far been punctuated by a bizarre mix of extreme brutality, especially in terms of warfare inflicted on an urban environment, and scenes that are out-and-out surreal. With so many of the visceral horrors of the fighting easily accessible in near real-time, it’s not entirely surprising that scenes of apparently everyday Ukrainians towing away Russian fighting vehicles have resonated. 

With more Russian military vehicles poised to take part in a likely renewed onslaught against Kyiv, and further reinforcements likely on the way, it seems inevitable that similar incidents will be repeated in the days and weeks to come.

Update, March 2:

In the latest development regarding Ukrainians’ commandeering of Russian military vehicles, a (possibly tongue-in-cheek) notice on the subject has been provided by Ukraine’s National Agency for the Protection against Corruption, or NAPC, according to the Interfax-Ukraine News Agency. The organization has determined that captured Russian tanks and other equipment do not have to be declared as income to the country’s tax office.

“Have you captured a Russian tank or armored personnel carrier and are worried about how to declare it? Keep calm and continue to defend the Motherland! There is no need to declare the captured Russian tanks and other equipment because the cost of this … does not exceed 100 living wages (UAH 248,100),” the NAPC’s press service confirmed.

“Speaking by the letter of the law, combat trophies are not subject to reflection in the declaration for the following reasons: they were acquired not as a result of the conclusion of any type of transaction, but in connection with the full-scale aggression of the Russian Federation on February 24, 2022, against the independent and sovereign Ukrainian state as a continuation the insidious attack of the Russian Federation on Ukraine launched in 2014. Thanks to the courage and victory of the defenders of the Ukrainian state, enemy military equipment usually comes to you already destroyed and disabled, which makes it impossible to evaluate it in accordance with the law on the valuation of property, property rights, and professional valuation activities in Ukraine. Therefore, it is also impossible to find out how much such property costs,” the NAPC added.

We also now have footage of a twin tractor-pull moving an apparently abandoned Russian Tor-M2 (SA-15 Gauntlet) short-range surface-to-air missile system:

Update, March 3:

The latest piece of Russian equipment that has apparently fallen into the hands of a Ukrainian tractor driver is certainly pretty unusual. The footage below, apparently taken in the Sumy Oblast in northeastern Ukraine, shows a tractor towing a Russian UR-77 Meteorit mine-clearing vehicle, based on the chassis of the 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled gun. This Soviet-era design is fitted with a launcher and two mine-clearing line charges. 

Once deployed, the explosive charge creates a shock wave that destroys or triggers mines or unexploded ordnance, creating a corridor some 20 feet wide and up to 300 feet long.

UR-77 Meteorit mine-clearing vehicle., Vitaly V. Kuzmin/Wikimedia Commons

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Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.