Hidden beneath the canopy of a forest near the Russian border, a Ukrainian tank brigade is carrying out a “top secret” mission.
The 3rd Tank Brigade, nicknamed the Iron Brigade after it aided in the liberation of Kharkiv Oblast last September, is replete with seasoned soldiers who have been fighting since February 24 last year, the day Vladimir Putin ordered his full-scale invasion.
A small team of soldiers of varying ages, convened around a Soviet-era T-72 tank, make up what they say is the “most secret” brigade in the region.
A man named Artem is a commander of the Iron Brigade. He was in Kharkiv Oblast when Putin announced his “special military operation”.
They were sent to defend the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in the first months of the war, a feat which proved successful.
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They were then required to return to Kharkiv, which had been one of the first Ukrainian regions captured by the Russians.
A month before they helped liberate Kharkiv, in what is now known to be one of the turning points of the 16-month conflict, they earned recognition from President Volodymyr Zelensky, who gave them the name the Iron Brigade on his country’s Independence Day.
Speaking to David Patrikarakos for MailOnline, Artem said his squad was constantly in “grave danger” because they were so “close to the border”.
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At any point, he added, Russian troops could “launch a new offensive” and swiftly embroil the 3rd Tank Brigade in close combat.
In the meantime, part of their role is to shoot from several kilometres away at Russian soldiers in close proximity to their Ukrainian peers, sometimes as close as only 75 metres apart.
This skill requires precision; the “pleasure” Artem takes in killing Russians is far outweighed by the “terrifying” nightmare of accidentally striking one of his own.
Deep in the forest, ingenuity is an invaluable asset. The dining tables of the 3rd Tank Brigade are made of four used tank shells bolted together, a plank of wood balanced on top of them. The hollow insides of the four shells have also doubled up as storage units.
The soldiers do not wear body armour, though they do wear helmets, because a Russian attack would be one led by missiles not manpower.
The constant threat they face comes from drones. Small, intelligence-gathering unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that fly several kilometres in the air are difficult to detect and near impossible to shoot down.
Quadcopters flying 50 metres above them can also be difficult to hear if their tank engine is running, drowning out the nearby noises.
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