Earlier this year Russia began deliveries of the T-72B1 tank to Laos. As part of the settlement Russia in return requested and received 30 WWII-era T-34 tanks that Laotian army had still been using to the present.
Laos acquired the T-34s from Vietnam in 1987. They were part of the stock of 300 T-34s that Soviet Union delivered to North Vietnam between 1955 and 1960, and therefore may have seen action in the 1975 North Vietnamese drive on Saigon.
Once they return to Russia the T-34s are destined to be installed as museum pieces, be used in parades, and end up as movie stars of Russian war films. It goes to show the large role WWII has in the Russian collective consciousness, and the pride Russians take in this fine piece of engineering which helped defeat Hitler and save Russians from the virtual extinction Nazis had planned for them.
75-years later the Russians still have a use for these symbols, so much so that they’re importing them.
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) December 7, 2018
The Russians reportedly tried to sell Laos the more advanced T-72B3, which feature many more substantial improvements to bring them to a standard close to the more modern T-90, in 2017. That year, Laotian troops had a chance to drive these vehicles during Russia’s annual Tank Biathlon, a sort of hybrid military exercise and sporting event that brings together military personnel from various countries around the world.
Small, cash-strapped Laos balked at the T-72B3’s reported unit price of $3 million, opting for the cheaper T-72B1 White Eagle, instead. The exchange of the T-34/85s was also part of the 2017 deal, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
On the other end, Laos appears to have become the last active operator of the T-34/85 anywhere in the world. It’s an impressive run for the last major variant of the iconic T-34, which entered service in the latter half of World War II. As its designation indicates, this version featured an 85mm main gun, which significantly boosted its firepower, especially against late-war Nazi medium and heavy tanks. The tank was already well known for its speed, mobility, armor protection, and reliability, and is generally considered one of, if not the best all-around medium tank of the war.
Between 1940 and 1946, the Soviet Union made more than 58,000 T-34s of all types and after the war, they delivered thousands of these iconic vehicles to allies and partners, where they continued to see active combat. The Laotian examples, which the Russian Ministry of Defense says are 1944 production examples, took a curiously circuitous route to get to that country, though.
Though it has become the final military operator of the type, Laos reportedly only received its T-34/85s as part of an earlier three-way deal involving the Soviet Union and Vietnam in 1987. What was then North Vietnam had taken delivery of approximately 300 of these tanks between 1955 and 1960, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI. Still, the Lao People’s Liberation Armed Forces put these World War II-era vehicles into service alongside its only slightly newer T-54/T-55 tanks, which it had obtained in the 1970s.
With their 1944 production dates, it is very possible that these tanks saw combat on the Eastern Front during World War II. After delivery to Vietnam, they could have seen further action against South Vietnam and its U.S. allies, or against the Americans and their partners in neighboring Laos. That they’re now back in Russia means they’ve come full circle.