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Vintage T-34 Tanks Return to Russia

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Peter Suciu

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While the Russian Federation is on track to receive the first 100 of a planned 2,300 T-14 Armata main battle tanks by 2020, TV Zvezda, the official television channel of the Russian Ministry of Defense reported that the Kremlin made a deal to receive 30 World War II-era T-34/85 tanks from Laos. As part of a three-way deal that also involved Vietnam, the Russian military will receive the vintage tanks – not for use on any potential frontline but rather for placement in museums, parades and potentially even in state-sponsored movies and other media.

The 30 tanks, which had been provided as part of military-technical cooperation with Laos conducted with the Soviet Union by way of Vietnam, reportedly arrived at Russia's far eastern port of Vladivostok on January 9, 2019. The tanks were transported to Vietnam at the end of December and then loaded on to ships.

"During the visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Laos in January last year, agreements were reached on the return of T-34 tanks to Russia," explained the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation on state TV. "The combat vehicles have already covered more than 4,500 km by sea and arrived in Vladivostok. Then by rail, it will be delivered to the Moscow region, to the city of Naro-Fominsk."

Naro-Fominsk, which is near Moscow, is the home to the Russian Army's 4th Guards Tank Division, and it is there that the tanks will likely be refurbished for future use in parades and movies. The tanks have been described as being "in entirely good condition," and in released photos the T-34s do appear to be operational. It is worth noting that upon arrival in Russia the tanks bore the distinctive Lao national roundels on the turrets but otherwise look like they are direct from the frontlines of WWII.

While Laos returned the T-34s to Russia as part of a January 2018 deal, the Russian Ministry Defense hasn't said whether the tanks were purchased or used as part of an exchange for other military equipment. However, the timing could indicate that these were part of a new trade deal between the two nations.

In December the Lao People's Armed Forces took possession of an undisclosed number of upgraded T-72B1 "White Eagle" main battle tanks. The first batch of these tanks, which was introduced in 2010 and features Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor (ERA) kits as well as improved gunnery sights and upgraded electronics, arrived in Laos in December 2018. Russia is also due to supply Laos with its Yak-130 aircraft including combat trainers over the next year.

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The T-34's Long Journey to and From Laos

The T-34 was seen as one of the primary factors in the Soviet Red Army's victory over the German invaders in World War II. Between 1940 and 1946 the Soviet Union produced more than 58,000 T-34s in total, and after the war these were provided to allies and partners. During the Cold War the T-34 in its various configurations continued to see combat.

Laos had been the last active operator of the T-34/85 anywhere in the world, and this marked the end of the line for what had been one of the most innovative tanks developed prior to the Second World War. The version used by Laos entered service in the latter half of World War II and featured an 85mm main gun, which significantly boosted its firepower – and allowed it to continue to go head-to-head with late-war German medium and heavy tanks.

"It was a simple design that was praised at the time," said David Willey, curator of The Tank Museum in Bovington, England.

The Russian Ministry of Defense has maintained that these are in fact 1944 production models, however some military analysts have claimed – at least based on the photos – that these tanks may include Czechoslovak-made versions produced in the 1950s. This could explain how after all these decades the tanks are still in operating condition.

"These were probably post-war and built to better standards," Willey told Military Vehicles. "It is a testament to longevity of the T-34, but we'd be blind if we didn't say that about other bits of WWII technology as well. Paraguay still uses a couple of Sherman tanks as one example, and South Africa was using a post-World War II British-made tank until quite recently. Israel was using Sherman tanks in the 1980s, so other nations' tanks have shown longevity. It is the nature of the beast."

While it is possible, even likely, that at least some of the tanks may have seen combat at the end of the Second World War, these tanks had been provided as part of an earlier three-way deal between the Soviet Union and Vietnam back in 1987.

Many of these tanks had actually been among the 300 T-34s supplied to North Vietnam between 1955 and 1960 according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and it is also likely that these tanks saw use against South Vietnamese, American or other allied forces in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The tanks remained in the arsenal of the unified People's Republic of Vietnam into the 1980s.

In 1987 many of these tanks were then transferred to the Lao People's Liberation Armed Forces where the T-34/85s were put into service alongside the Cold War era T-54/T-55 tanks that the Southeast Asia nation had purchased in the 1970s.

Now that these are back in Russia it is likely that at least a few of the T-34/85s will go through a rapid refurbishment and be ready for the planned Victory Parade in Moscow's Red Square on May 9, notably as the T-34 has remained an iconic symbol of Russian nationalism even in the post Soviet Era.

"For Russia it was the T-34 that was the symbol of World War II, just as it was the Spitfire fighter plane for Britain," said The Tank Museum's Willey. "There is a lot of press about how Russia is getting these tanks back, but I can say if 30 Spitfires suddenly ended up available there would be a huge consortium in the UK to get those back."

Unlike with China's "Cultural Revolution" that destroyed items from the past – which Willey compared to Britain's own destruction of religious buildings during the Reformation – it wasn't the intent of any nation to give away these historic objects.

"We gave away equipment during the Cold War to support our allies, and the Soviet Union did the same thing with the T-34," Willey added. "Now they want the tanks back as it is part of the history. For Putin's Russia it isn't exactly a happy place, and this is when countries tend to look back with rose colored glasses."

That past is already being seen in Russian-made movies about those "good old days."

A recent Russian-made film titled T-34 was released at the beginning of the year domestically and grossed more than $20 million to date, and has sold more than five million tickets. The film will be released internationally, including in the United States, later in 2019.

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