Ukraine Just Captured Russia’s Most Advanced Operational Tank

A fully intact example of Russia’s T-90M tank has been captured by Ukrainian troops, in what’s apparently the first time this top-of-the-line fighting vehicle has been acquired by Kyiv’s forces since Russia’s all-out invasion began. Obtaining such an advanced tank is the latest in a long line of intelligence windfalls for the Ukrainians and their NATO allies. There’s a good chance that the captured T-90M — also known as the Proryv-3 (Breakthrough-3) — will ultimately make its way to those NATO allies for intelligence exploitation.

Multiple photos of the exterior and interior of the T-90M have been published on social media, including by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, which stated that the tank was “found in [the] Kharkiv region in perfect condition.”

There have been suggestions that the three-man crew of the T-90M simply left it where it was after it threw a track. In one view of the rear of the tank, the track is clearly missing from the left-hand side. One video appears to show the same T-90M later being towed away by a Ukrainian tank, suggesting it has lost mobility.

A track is thrown when a portion of it breaks free from the road wheels, drive sprocket, and tensioner, which can be the result of especially challenging terrain, inadequate maintenance, or simply poor driving technique. Depending on the seriousness of the incident, it can be a complex process to reinstall a track, and abandoning a tank is not entirely unusual in such circumstances. It is surprising, perhaps, that the crew didn’t appear to make any effort to destroy the vehicle, or at least some of its more sensitive subsystems, to prevent their capture.

An M1 Abrams tank throws a track during a public demonstration:

After all, the tank in question is one of the very latest in the Russian inventory and one that has only rarely been encountered in the fighting in Ukraine so far. Certainly, this is the most intact example that has been noted so far, with at least one previous example having been knocked out by enemy fire, also in the northeastern Kharkiv Oblast.

Before that, at least one T-90M was noted in action in the same region as early as April, as Russia doubled down on efforts to extend its control over the territory of the Donbas. On that occasion, a hastily camouflaged tank appeared in a video released by the National Guard of Russia, or Rosgvardia).

As we have discussed in the past, the T-90M is the most technologically advanced and capable main battle tank to have achieved fully operational status with the Russian Armed Forces. The next-generation T-14 Armata is not yet used by frontline armored formations and is available only in very modest numbers. So far, it has not appeared in the war in Ukraine.

The first production T-90M tanks only began to be delivered to the 2nd Guards M. I. Kalinin Taman Motor Rifle Division, part of the 1st Guards Tank Army, within the Western Military District, in the spring of 2020. Estimates indicate that perhaps only 100 or so examples were in service at the time Russia launched its latest invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Ultimately, while the still-unproven T-14 aims to be a revolutionary tank design, the T-90M, from the Uralvagonzavod factory, represents what is very much an evolutionary approach, building on the T-90 series that was first introduced in the early 1990s as a further development of the Cold War-era T-72. In that sense, it’s more comparable to the T-80UM2, an experimental upgrade of the Cold War-era T-80, although this appears to have yielded only one prototype, also lost in the Ukrainian war.

Among the features of the T-90M is an improved 2A46M-4 125mm smoothbore main gun in a modernized turret. This is complemented by an advanced remote weapon station, mounted on top of the turret. Photos from within the tank reveal interesting details of the sighting system, which is understood to be the all-new PNM-T.

The PNM-T is interesting in itself since it is the result of a wider effort to reduce the reliance of the Russian military-industrial complex on Western technology. This initiative gained traction when sanctions were introduced after the Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and has only become more important since, as new measures make it even harder for Russia to acquire high-tech Western components. This is an issue that we have reported on in the past, and it’s also one that has affected tank production, in particular.

Introduced around 2018 or 2019, the PNM-T is therefore billed as a fully Russian sighting system, unlike the earlier Sosna-U system, which relied, to a degree, on components from the French Thales company. This had been previously installed on the T-90M.

The T-90M is also better protected than its predecessors, with advanced armor-protection and countermeasures capabilities. This includes Relikt built-in explosive reactive armor (ERA) designed to protect against shaped charges and to minimize the impact of armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) rounds.

A T-90M on display. Mike1979 Russia/Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, the captured example is outfitted with distinctive Nakidka radar-absorbent material, or RAM, blankets. This is intended to provide another degree of defense against guided weapons, by reducing the infrared, thermal, and radar signatures of the vehicle. As well as being used to protect vehicles, Nakidka can also be used to camouflage field fortifications, ammunition dumps, and other objectives.

All in all, it looks as if this T-90M could yield some very interesting data on the capabilities of this very modern tank, and its subsystems.

Ukraine has made good use of captured Russian equipment in the past, including pressing into service tanks taken from, or abandoned by, the invaders. However, with only one T-90M seemingly captured so far in working condition, it’s much more likely that it will be used for intelligence analysis, rather than going back to war against the Russians.

It joins an eclectic collection of combat vehicles and other high-end equipment that has ended up in Ukrainian hands, often in seemingly good condition.

Just last week, we reported on the first confirmed capture of a vehicle from the Russian Taran-M signals intelligence, or SIGINT, system, which joins previous electronic warfare equipment, including part of the Krasukha-4 mobile jamming system.

The PNM-T sighting system, in particular, could be of considerable interest, revealing much about the capabilities of this tank, and others similarly equipped, to engage targets in different conditions and how it performs in the face of various countermeasures. It will also likely be highly valuable to see how Russian industry has addressed the problem of replacing Western high-tech components, with similar efforts also underway to ‘Russianize’ the electro-optical systems in fighter jets, for example.

With developments in armored warfare being characterized, to a strong degree, by competing trends in firepower, protection, and mobility, it seems the T-90M will be of as much interest to the United States, and other Western powers, as it is to Ukraine.

It’s currently unclear to what degree Ukraine is sharing this kind of intelligence with the United States or with other partners, although, at the very least, there appear to be channels established that would seem to facilitate this. It is very likely that examples of captured Russian equipment are even being passed on to the United States. There is, after all, a pre-war precedent for Ukraine handing over Russian-origin equipment to the United States for foreign materiel exploitation (FME).

That Russia is employing a highly diverse range of fighting vehicles in the Ukraine war is, by now, no surprise, with examples ranging from some of the latest types to enter service to early Cold War-era tanks that were long since eclipsed by more advanced designs. However, as long as vehicles continue to end up in Ukrainian hands in as good a condition as this T-90M, it seems likely they will continue to yield important clues as to the wider competencies and shortcomings of Russian Armed Forces’ equipment.

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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.