By Michael Biesecker — The Associated Press
Russia this week released a grainy black-and-white video, shot from the point of view of a gun sight, with which it wanted to prove that it had destroyed one of Ukraine's most fearsome tanks, but it was actually a tractor, according to a visual analysis by The Associated Press news agency.
The Russian Embassy in Washington D.C. announced Monday on Twitter that its military had "annihilated" eight German-made Leopard tanks, which is one of the most advanced and powerful weapons NATO has delivered to Ukraine. The Russian Defense Ministry posted a video Tuesday on the Telegram social network with "images of the destruction of foreign armored vehicles, including Leopard tanks."
The video was broadcast by Russian regime-controlled broadcasters and websites, which said it was recorded from the thermal imaging system of a KA-52 Alligator attack helicopter.
Several black silhouettes of vehicles can be seen, before the helicopter launches a guided missile that hits one and blows it up. "Direct hit!" says a voice in the Russian recording.
Germany announced earlier this year that it would deliver 18 Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine, which expects to receive a total of about 100 from various NATO countries next year. The Leopard 2 is one of the most maneuverable and armored battle tanks in the world, with a 120mm gun whose fire can pierce Soviet-era Russian tanks more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away, according to its manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann.
Ukrainian officials declined to comment this week on whether any of its Leopard tanks have been used in the battle. Almost immediately after the Russian video spread online, weapons experts and military bloggers began casting doubt on social media that the helicopter's missile hit a tank, let alone a Leopard.
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The agency's visual analysis shows that the vehicles seen in the video, which was recorded at night, appear to be large pieces of farm machinery parked in a field, specifically a self-propelled sprinkler and two corn and wheat harvesters.
This video photo, released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on June 6, 2023, shows what Russia claimed was the destruction of a German-made Leopard tank. AP
The vehicle hit by the Russian missile has four large wheels and sits high above the ground. Leopard 2 tanks are low and tracked, like an excavator.
The Russian embassy also said this week that its forces had destroyed three French-made AMX-10 light tanks, which do have wheels. But the AMX-10 has six wheels, not four.
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The silhouette of the destroyed vehicle in the video appears to more closely resemble a self-propelled sprayer, a type of specialized tractor common on modern farms.
Thermal imaging systems like the Russian helicopter's detect heat sources to target enemy tanks and trucks in smoky or low-light conditions. The vehicles in the video appear black, meaning their engine was cold.
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Tanks operating on the front lines usually hide in vegetation or behind buildings, emerging only to move and fire, two military vehicle experts told the agency. It would be highly unusual for the tanks to be stationed outdoors, where they are easy targets for enemy gunners, they said.
The two experts, who saw the Russian video, said the vehicle hit by the helicopter's missile was not a Leopard tank or any other type of armored vehicle.
"The silhouette of that particular vehicle or object didn't look like what you would expect from a Leopard tank," said George Barros, who heads the Russia-Ukraine Geospatial Intelligence Team at the Institute for the Study of War. "I agree [...] in that it was probably a piece of heavy agricultural equipment," he said.
Valentin Châtelet, a research associate at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab, also said the objects in the video were clearly not Leopard tanks.
"They are pointing their thermal camera at three vehicles that appear to be harvesters," said Châtelet, which is based in Brussels. "And chances are the first target they're hitting is a sprinkler," he added.
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Although both Ukraine and Russia have repeatedly tried to minimize their battlefield losses, analysts said the Russian military is particularly characterized by making claims of major victories that later proved false.
"If you follow what they post and what they claim, you'll find that they've been outrageously wrong on a variety of different things, whether it's hit weapons systems that had never been deployed or official announcements of the Russians capturing some particular villages or settlements several times in a row without ever having gotten there in the first place," Barros said.
Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to the report.