Advances by the Ukrainian army in the north have been modest, but are emblematic of both sides’ strategy: maneuvering the artillery to gain territory.
RUSKA LOZOVA, Ukraine – The Ukrainian major had some tasks to complete as he circled the front line of his army battalion. A platoon commander needed anti-tank weapons. Another wanted to show off a new line of trenches his forces had dug following a recent Ukrainian advance.
But as he drove from one location to another in his camouflaged armored van near the town of Derhachi, time ticked. A Russian surveillance drone hovered above, observing, sending coordinates to Russian artillery units, the major said. About twenty minutes later, at least three grenades rained down, forcing the major and his team to scramble.
“They are improving,” said the major, named Kostyantyn. “They know our positions, but they saw the car coming and started shooting.”
The Russian front line north of Kharkiv has been stagnant for more than a month. But in recent days, Ukrainian forces have advanced outward from the city, launching a concerted offensive to the north and east that began with heavy shelling and an infantry assault supported by tanks and other armored vehicles.
While the gains have been modest, they are emblematic of both Ukrainian and Russian strategy as the war drags into its third month – a slow routine that focuses on one village at a time and relies mostly on drones and concentrated artillery fire.
These weapons, capable of firing ammunition from outside the direct line of sight of opposing forces, are now the central component of the war after the Russian defeat around Kiev, where long columns of troops and tanks were visible targets vulnerable to ambushes. Without them, Ukrainian and Russian units cannot advance nor can they truly defend.
Back and forth maneuvers take place in eastern Ukraine, both as Russian forces advance into the Donbas region, and as Ukrainian forces try to force Russian artillery units out of reach of Kharkiv, a sprawling city 25 miles away. from the Russian border.
“This is a war of position, an artillery war,” said Kostyantyn, the major, who refused to give his surname for security reasons.
This dynamic played Ruska Lozova for days. The city, just north of Kharkiv, was declared liberated by the Ukrainian army late last month, although fleeing enemy soldiers have been replaced by incoming artillery shells and terrified residents continue to evacuate.
The Russian drones, or the little Orlan 10, which sounds like a lawnmower, have proved to be a lethal and wandering presence. The drone’s ability to identify Ukrainian positions for Russian artillery batteries meant that every foot of ground gained around Kharkiv was hit by heavy shelling.
“They have an Orlan suspended in the sky, they see the positions, they target them and they shoot,” said Kostyantyn. Ukrainians have their own drones, many of them small bench-sized, capable of providing similar results.
The Russians occupied Ruska Lozova, a city with a pre-war population of about 6,000, in mid-March, Ukrainian residents and military officials said, after being pushed back from Kharkiv in the preceding weeks. It is unclear how many Russian soldiers were garrisoned there, although residents estimate it was somewhere in the hundreds given the number of vehicles in the city.
Ruska Lozova is a pleasant suburb of one-story houses, split in two by the Lozovenka River. Many of its residents are avid hunters in nearby forests and open fields. But the city’s military strategic importance lies in its hills, which offer a direct view of Kharkiv, several miles away.
After taking Ruska Lozova, Russian soldiers set up artillery on the heights and began shooting in Kharkiv. To the north and east of the city, Russian soldiers established more artillery positions in neighboring villages and expanded the bombing. The Ukrainian army returned fire from artillery positions in places in and around the city that were staggered to ensure that some were out of reach of their Russian counterparts.
The result was a duel between weapons such as multi-launch rocket systems, some with a range of about 20 miles; howitzers, with a range of about 13 miles and heavier mortars, capable of firing projectiles for about five miles.
“Both sides are using artillery to deny the other side the ability to maneuver,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “And they’re pairing it with drone-based intelligence.”
For the Ukrainians, recovering Ruska Lozova became a priority, a way to relieve pressure and bombing on the northern parts of the city.
Kostyantyn’s unit, a special forces battalion, along with other forces, took part in the assault. The first part of the operation, he said, was the suppression and elimination of Russian artillery around the city before advancing. Residents of Ruska Lozova said that when Ukrainian troops arrived at the end of April, the shelling was relentless.
“Every house is damaged, everything burns. He’s reduced to a pulp, ”said Natalia Chichyota, 41, the day after Ruska Lozova’s release. At least two civilians were killed there during the occupation.
Tanks and armored vehicles followed the barrage of Ukrainian artillery, Kostyantyn said, explaining that mechanized troops were able to move more easily after Russian artillery was nearly silenced and moved.
“After suppressing their fire points with artillery, our vanguard entered,” he said, adding that Russian air support arrived soon after. Residents said the Russians used airstrikes that left large craters, especially around one of the town’s churches, but they weren’t as frequent as artillery fire.
What followed after Ukrainian tanks and infantry entered the city is not exactly clear. Residents said the first Ukrainian soldiers arrived outside their homes around April 26. Ruska Lozova was declared liberated on the 28th. According to everyone, the Russian retreat was relatively orderly.
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During that time, Kostyantyn said, there was a “rifle battle” around the city between Ukrainian and Russian troops, a rare occurrence during this phase of the war, which had mainly featured artillery, rockets and mortar rounds.
“Now we are digging trenches there, they are shooting at us with artillery from another village,” said Kostyantyn. Russian artillery retreated to a northernmost village called Pytomnyk. The bridge over the main highway connecting the two cities has been rendered unusable, probably delaying any further Ukrainian advance.
“And so, village after village, we push them back from Kharkiv.”
The major did not disclose the number of Ukrainian casualties suffered in the battle, nor did he reveal any estimates of Russians wounded and killed. But any kind of offensive operation like that to take this city almost certainly involves losses on both sides.
Ruska Lozova may have been freed by Russian forces for now, but the war has not nearly gone away. Like so many other cities across Ukraine, it is trapped in the “gray zone” – the land between Russian and Ukrainian forces – and is subject to frequent bombing.
“Drones have been flying for days,” said Sergiy, a resident of Ruska Lozova, who fled to Kharkiv on Tuesday. “As soon as the soldiers appear, shooting begins.”
In recent days, a large part of the remaining population has fled to Kharkiv; some are picked up by humanitarian aid convoys made up of volunteers who drive their sedans, minibuses and vans around the destroyed city.
One such race occurred earlier this week when Oleg and Mykola, volunteers from a Baptist church in Kharkiv, drove their 1996 white Mercedes van to Ruska Lozova. They raced around the city, looking for families who wanted to evacuate and handed out food shopping bags to those who wanted to stay.
It was only towards the end of their hour-long mission, when several people piled into the van, the Russian artillery began to scream – round after round sneaking up on their stationary vehicle as they struggled to fold the walker of an elderly woman and load the luggage in the back. The passengers crossed their hearts and prayed.
This was what it meant to be liberated in this chapter of artillery warfare, where the front line is not so much defined by trenches, but by the reach of guns on either side.
They drove back to Kharkiv, the panting old van to climb the hill that had once been a perfect vantage point for the Russian forces. It was Oleg’s seventh trip to Ruska Lozova since Ukrainian troops claimed the city.
“Today was a good day,” he said, with a straight face, after returning to town. “It was quiet enough.”