In the outskirts of Kyiv, a small team of engineers and one “crazy professor” are making the ultimate tank from scrap metal and old tractor parts.
Roads in the east of Ukraine are littered with signs of war: roadblocks, craters, tanks, and camo-painted trucks. Occasionally a Mitsubishi L200 pickup painted in a striking geometric camouflage pattern will roll by. That's Azov Battalion. Its trademark camo print covers its trucks and personnel carriers, and announces the battalion's arrival to battle on its custom-built tanks and armored vehicles.
Motherboard spoke to a few Azov soldiers and found out where these Mad Max tanks, as Azov soldiers referred to them, are built. We headed to the suburbs of Kyiv, where the Azov Engineering Group keeps its headquarters in an old tractor factory. On top of the front building sits a rusty model tractor and a mechanical wheel embellished with the Soviet hammer and sickle. A huge Azov flag is pinned underneath.
A guard and a surprisingly friendly German shepherd welcome us into the enormous industrial complex. The tractor factory was abandoned years before the war, and the land was earmarked for residential development but fell victim to bureaucratic red tape and squatters.
Azov member and factory foreman Bogdan Zvarych says the group moved into the compound earlier this year after police requested their help to clear it out. "It was overrun with criminals. There were people with guns, drugs, making fake alcohol," he said. "Normal police couldn't come here, it was too difficult."
Realizing they'd stumbled upon the ideal workshop, Azov signed a lease and set up.
"Before we were preparing our trucks in normal garages around Kyiv. These cars with all this armored equipment and anti-tank rockets were sitting in the garage of a private person," he laughs. "This is our reality, Ukraine reality."
Ukraine's military budget went into decline after the country left the Soviet Union in 1991, a trend that's only reversed recently. When separatist aggression started in the east in March 2014, the country's defense force numbered 150,000 (out of a population of 45 million), only 5,000 of whom were battle ready. To tighten the slack, volunteers hastily organized themselves into battalions and headed to the front.
Most of the volunteer battalions, including Azov, have now been incorporated into the Ukrainian defense force, but they continue to operate pretty autonomously with their own structure of command—"We're all brothers," Zvarych tells us—their own recruitment and training programs, and in Azov's case, their own tanks.
"We are the only volunteer battalion with our own tank factory," Zvarych proudly tells us.
Azov have a controversial reputation, in no small part because of its white supremacist founder and penchant for Nazi symbolism: The battalion's insignia, (which many members have inked on their forearms) is a modified Nazi Wolf's Hook overlaying another neo-Nazi favorite, the Black Sun symbol. Many Azov members laugh off the Neo-Nazi label, emphasising that Russia is their only enemy. However the reputation has had serious consequences for the battalion, including exclusion from the US military training program.
Azov and some of the other volunteer battalions do have government-issued tanks, but Zvarych emphasises the government can take them back any time. Not so with their tanks, which belong to the battalion from tracks to turret.
Zvarych invited us inside the workshop, where a small team of student welders, engineers, and guys who worked here back when the factory made tractors, are finishing off their latest creation, "Azovette."
The battalion has a hodgepodge fleet of armored vehicles, including a converted garbage truck which they affectionately call "Pechyvo," Ukrainian for "Cookie." But today they're working on converting a tank-turned-farm-tractor back to a tank.
Zvarych walks us around the metal beast, pointing out the layers of armor, each 7cm thick and lined with explosives intended to disperse the impact of any strike. Most projectiles capable of penetrating the 7cm of armor will be shaped-charged missiles, consisting of a hollow cone that lays concave to the tip of the projectile and is backed by explosives. When detonated, the explosives hit the apex of the cone and propel it forward, effectively turning the cone inside out and forming a focussed jet of explosive energy that drives the projectile forward for maximum impact. The explosives in Azovette's armor are intended to counteract the shaped-charge by driving energy in the opposite direction so the cone can't turn inside out to focus the blast.
The armor is spaced out in layers, creating chambers that keep any damage contained to that layer of armor. There are seven chambers of this reactive armor up front and three on the sides.
"Usually a tank has 10 or 20cm of armor (in the front) but we put in 1.4m. This tank can take anything, even a big missile from a plane. It can take all the modern equipment of all the armies," says Zvarych.
He says Azovette is the perfect tank and compares the 50 tonne 5-seater to Nazi Germany's super-tank, Panzer VIII Maus, a fully enclosed, 188 tonne goliath of mythological proportions that never passed the prototype stage.
A tank's tracks are always one of its weak points so Azov engineers have reinforced Azovette's track skirt with layers of custom armor. Zvarych says projectiles would have to hit the skirt three times in the exact same spot to get through to the vehicle.
Beneath all the armor, there's the chassis of an old T-64 battle tank, the best Soviet tank model ever made according to Zvarych.
"The new tanks, the T-52, T-80 aren't as good," he says. "The T-64s were only made for Russia and Ukraine, they weren't given to export because they are the best."
It turns out an old T-64 is pretty easy to come by in Ukraine. During Ukraine's peace time, starting with its independence in 1991 and ending with the current conflict in March 2014, the tanks were put to other uses.
"The plant that made the tanks legalized them for everyday use. They made bulldozers and farm equipment using the tracks," Zvarych says, pointing to a bright yellow tractor body that once belonged to the T-64 currently under construction. "Anyone can buy these."
"A tank costs around $2 million to buy from the government but this tractor cost less than $50,000 and with the help of our engineers we can build a much better tank," he says.
Azov's Engineering Group is about ten men working under the creative direction of the battalion's own "crazy professor," Mykola Stepanov.
Stepanov worked as an engineer and deputy director at Malyshev Factory for 46 years. The state-owned plant was the biggest tank manufacturer in the USSR and the birthplace of the T-64 currently in front of us.
"He can design any tank he wants," Zvarych says.
Stepanov is in the zone when we visit. He spends the whole time standing at a workstation with glasses resting on the tip of his nose, still and silent except for an occasional pencil strike against his design sheet.
"For him this is a dream job. He's our mad scientist," Zvarchy says. "It's much easier to build the tanks he wants here because he doesn't need to have big meetings just to decide the placement of every bolt."
Once Stepanov puts pencil to paper, the engineers and welders make it a reality. "If the Russians tried to make something like this it would take them 10 years. In Ukraine, maybe 8 years. In Azov, it takes around six months," Zvarych says.
Zvarych reckons Azovette will be ready to roll out in the next two months.
The tank will be fitted with two double barrelled 23mm caliber cannons that each fire around 3,400 round per minute plus a missile launcher with 8 missiles. Inside, the cabin has no viewing windows. Instead the crew rely on cameras on the front, back and sides of the tank and operate the turret and guns by joystick.
"It's like a video game inside," says one of the Azov soldiers.
Zvarych walks us through the workshop to a hall that looks like a machine graveyard. "They might look ugly, but there are some very unique machines in here," he tells us.
"We use a lot of the equipment that was left behind. During the Soviet Union they made these machines to work 50 years," he says. "They're still very good and very accurate. In the USSR, everything was like that. A very simple car should run. It runs shitty, it looks ugly, but it runs. And it will run for 50 years."
As well as making the most of the abandoned machines, the battalion has scavenged scrap metal from the compound and relies on donated cash and materials from Ukrainian civilians and businesses.
"We have 1,200 fighters but around 50,000 people around us, working with Azov. We have a lot of people who just want to help us," says Zvarych. "Every Ukrainian sees our government is useless. That's why people help us with their work, money, food, clothing. They know with Azov they will be safe. With the government, they will not be."
It's true that distrust for Ukraine's government runs deep here. Military bases, coffee shops and social media are swarmed with rumors of corruption, incompetence and disloyalty.
"The Ukrainian government couldn't build this tank. Why? Because they steal the money much faster than they can spend it," quips Zvarych.
Earlier this week a soldier told Motherboard about how he and his colleagues had "liberated" 40 sets of night vision goggles from government storage. He said the goggles were donated to Ukraine by the US and Canada as part of those countries' non-lethal assistance programs but, the soldier says, the Ukrainian government locked them in storage around 50km from the frontline. He speculates the government intended to sell the goggles rather than provide them to the troops. The soldier's story is unconfirmed, but it's a good illustration of the little faith many Ukrainians have for their government.
"Trust me, our government doesn't want this tank to have life," says Zvarych. He says the government is more concerned about money than people, an attitude that just doesn't fly with Azov. "The armor on this tank costs $100,000 but the five people inside it are worth much more."
Zvarych echoes a sentiment we've heard before from soldiers in Ukraine: the government is not pulling its weight. Zvarych says that since Azov was incorporated into the Ukrainian defense force, it's received government support, including uniforms and weapons. But, he tells us, "Usually they are such shitty weapons. I have a pistol made in 1960... 1960!" A passing soldier holds up a small rock and says, "this is better."
Azov's dissatisfaction with the Ukrainian government and its equipment is why it hopes to add weapons to its production line in the near future. But despite the Mad Max vibe in this compound, we're not in some lawless dystopia, and Azov still has to clear some regulatory hurdles before it can expand its arms manufacturing.
"We have a lot of specialists who know what a gun should work and look like so when we get our own license we can make our own kind of weapon," Zvarych says.
So does that mean Azov has a license for Azovette and her fellow Mad Max tanks?
"No, this is a tractor. For paperwork purposes it's a tractor," Zvarych says with mock innocence, "We put metal on our own tractor. Why would we need a license for this?"
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