Life in a Ukrainian unit: diving for cover, waiting for Western weapons

PRYVILLIA, Ukraine – Through binoculars, Ukrainian soldiers can see the Russian position in the distance. But the only artillery weapon they use in a messy little outpost in the southern steppe has insufficient range to hit it.

These circumstances have imposed a paralyzing and grim routine on the Ukrainians, who are beaten daily by Russian artillery volley without having the means to counterattack. Every few hours they plunge into the trenches to escape the bullets whizzing across the sky.

“They have our fixed position, they know where we are,” said Sergeant Anatoly Vykhovanets. “It’s like we’re in the palm of their hands.”

As President Volodymyr Zelensky appeals to the West almost daily for heavier artillery, it’s positions like the one here on the west bank of the Dnipro River that most illustrate how critical that weaponry is for Ukraine. Military analysts say the battle is now based not so much on the skill or courage of Ukrainian soldiers, but on the accuracy, quantity and striking power of long-range weapons.

The artillery capability of the two armies near Pryvillia is so biased in Russia’s favor that Ukrainian officials have specifically highlighted the region to Western officials and US Congressmen in their calls for more military support.

In response, the Western allies have tried to precipitate the artillery systems and related equipment in Ukraine, and are starting to arrive. But not as quickly as Ukrainian officials would have liked, especially in places like this small outpost in the south.

The United States has announced plans to send 90 American M777 howitzers, a system capable of firing for 25 miles with pinpoint accuracy, but it was only this week that the first in this region was fired in combat, according to a video. supplied by the military to a Ukrainian newspaper.

Other American weapons Ukraine relies on include drones to locate targets and correct artillery fire and tracked armored vehicles used to tow howitzers into position even under fire.

On Monday President Biden signed an updated version of the Lend-Lease Actwhich would allow the transfer of additional American weapons to Ukraine, and Tuesday night in the House of Representatives A $ 40 billion aid package approved.

But for now at the outpost of the 17th Tank Regiment of Ukraine, in a line of trees between two fields, the most soldiers can do is try to survive.

To do this, they appoint a round-the-clock listener. He stands, like a guard prairie dog, in the center of the unit, listening to the distant boom of the departing Russian artillery. The warning is “air!” Soldiers have about three seconds to dive into a trench before the bullets hit.

The Ukrainian army responds to fire from the artillery operating in the rear of this position, but has too few weapons to remove the Russian weapons line.

For all the erathe Ukrainian army has shown extraordinary success in avoiding and defeating Russian forces in the north, relying on stealth and mobility to ambush a larger, better-equipped army. But in southern Ukraine, in an area of ​​flat pancake crop fields cut by irrigation canals, Ukrainians are fighting a different kind of war.

In the steppe, the swirling, flowing front lines of the two armies are spaced miles or dozens of miles apart, over an expanse of giant fields of yellow rapeseed, green winter wheat, cultivated under black earth and tiny villages.

From time to time, small units sneak into this buffer zone for skirmishes and to call the artillery against each other, using scant rows of trees for cover. “There is nowhere to hide,” the commander of a reconnaissance brigade that is deploying units in these fights said in an interview. He asked to be identified only by his nickname, Botsman.

“It’s like looking at a chessboard,” he said. “Each side sees the other side’s moves. It just depends on the impact force you have. Everything is seen. The only question is, can you hit that spot? “

Soldiers on both sides call artillery guns which can do just that with a nickname, “the gods of war”.

Ukraine entered the war at a disadvantage. Russia’s 203mm Peony howitzers, for example, shoot at around 24 miles while Ukraine’s 152mm Geocent guns shoot at 18 miles. (The Soviet legacy artillery systems, used by both sides, are named after the flowers; the Carnation and Tulip guns are also in play during the war.)

That’s why Ukrainians want American howitzers so desperately; their 25-mile range when firing a GPS-guided precision bullet would, in some places, tilt the lead over them slightly.

“The Russians now have two advantages, artillery and aviation,” said Mykhailo Zhirokhov, the author of a book on artillery fighting in the war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, “Gods of Hybrid War. “. “Ukraine needs artillery and anti-aircraft missiles. These are the things of fundamental importance on the front “.

The Ukrainian army has an insufficient amount of artillery even at medium range, such as weapons that could hit the Russian arms line harassing the Ukrainian unit about nine miles away. The Russians are in a rock quarry, visible through binoculars as a gray spot in the distance.

Hundreds of craters fill the fields all around. Soldiers use a short-range anti-tank artillery gun of little use against the Russian position that is out of range.

But the soldiers still have a purpose: they can stop a tank assault using their short-range anti-tank artillery weapon, preventing the Russian advance, as long as they endure the daily barrages. So far, no one in the unit has been injured or killed. This leaves the front in stasis after two months of Ukrainian forces advancing about 40 miles into this area.

Russia cannot capitalize on its artillery superiority to advance. His tactic for attacking in open plains is to hammer opposing positions with artillery, then send armored vehicles forward in a maneuver called “contact reconnaissance” to overwhelm what’s left of the defensive line.

But due to Ukraine’s wealth of missiles and anti-armor weapons, Russia cannot advance and gain ground.

Meanwhile, Ukraine also cannot advance, although its tactics are different. The Ukrainian army relies on small infantry units with armored vehicles that only perform support roles. Although Ukraine could take ground, it could not hold it back or use it as logistical support for further advancements, as any new territory would remain under Russian bombing.

The planned Ukrainian advance in this area hinges on the arrival of M777 howitzers and other western long-range artillery that can strike Russian artillery in the rear. Thus, the Ukrainian infantry could advance under the artillery umbrella of these long-range systems.

If more powerful artillery were to arrive, it could quickly tip the scales, said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff.

In the fighting on the western bank of the Dnipro River, Russia’s goal appears to be to block Ukrainian forces that might otherwise move into the battle for the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s goal, once it has artillery capable of matching the range of Russian guns, is to move to fields within range of two bridges and a dam crossing the Dnipro River in one operation. that it could cut the supply lines of Russian forces, Mr. Arestovich, the presidential adviser, said.

“We would do it with pleasure,” said Colonel Taras Styk, commander of the 17th Tank Brigade. “But now we have nothing to hit them.”

Maria Varenikova contributed to the report.