Some of the best armored vehicles on the Ukrainian side of the long battle for Bakhmut don’t necessarily belong to the Ukrainian army. They might be from the Ukrainian national guard, the fighting force of the country’s interior department.
These eight-wheel BTR-4s are fast, flexible and—with their stabilized 30-millimeter autocannons and Barrier anti-tank missiles—hard-hitting. Especially when they operate alongside well-led infantry.
But the brutal, 10-month siege of Bakhmut spares no one and nothing. The national guard and army have lost several of their precious BTR-4s defending the ruined city.
The 17-ton, three-person BTR-4 is a uniquely Ukrainian vehicle. The Kharkiv Morozov Machine Building Design Bureau—Ukraine’s iconic tank plant—revealed the prototype in 2006.
The Kharkiv plant intended to sell the BTR-4 abroad. But the first big customer, Iraq, rejected the initial batch of vehicles, citing quality issues.
That was in 2013. A year later, Russian troops invaded Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and Donbas region. The Kharkiv plant diverted the BTR-4s to the Ukrainian army.
Scores of BTR-4s fought with the army in Donbas. In 2014, the interior ministry in Kyiv began forming national guard units—basically, heavily-armed border guards. The guardsmen took an initial consignment of 10 ex-army BTR-4s.
Seven years later, the army and guard between them had at least 250 BTR-4s. Another batch of around 70 was in production when, in late February 2022, Russia widened its war on Ukraine. As the Russians closed in, the factory in Kharkiv rushed to finish a few nearly-complete BTR-4s.
The BTR-4 in the past year has fought all over Ukraine, and earned plaudits for its speed and firepower. But the vehicle’s wheels and gun belie its overall lightness.
But the surviving vehicles still are in the fight. When the interior ministry’s Spartan Brigade—one of the ministry’s new “offensive” national guard units—joined the Bakhmut garrison, it brought along its BTR-4s, some of which have been modified with cage armor that can block rocket-propelled grenades.
To be clear, the Spartan BTR-4s aren’t the only BTR-4s fighting for Bakhmut. The army’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade also has deployed BTR-4s in or around the city.
They’re excellent urban fighting vehicles, thanks to their maneuverability and the high rate of fire of their 2A72 autocannons. But they require support. A video of a BTR-4 in action in Bakhmut in early February highlights the vehicle’s strengths—and also its weaknesses.
As a drone observes from overhead, the BTR-4 rolls along a snowy Bakhmut street. It opens fire on Russian troops just yards away, churning up the city block while rocking forward and backward—perhaps to complicate return fire.
The BTR-4’s cannon fire is devastating. But the vehicle’s crew seems to know they’re exposed to Russian attacks from behind. Ukrainian infantry, perhaps from the Spartan Brigade, carefully sweep the side streets behind the BTR-4.
These are classic combined-armed tactics. The vehicle covers the infantry and the infantry covers the vehicle. Close infantry support leverages the BTR-4’s firepower and mitigates its lack of armor protection.
But the BTR-4s still are vulnerable while traveling to and from Bakhmut along the one main road that’s still occasionally passable for the Ukrainians. Russian forces are close enough to the 0506 road to hit passing Ukrainian vehicles with rockets, missiles, mortars and artillery.
They’ve struck at least one, maybe two BTR-4s in recent weeks, adding to the deep losses the Spartan Brigade and other BTR-4-operators have suffered in Bakhmut. The BTR-4 is a fine piece of kit, but even the best hardware eventually turns to scrap on Ukraine’s cruelest battlefield.
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