Life in a Ukrainian unit: Diving for cover, waiting for Western weapons
By Andrew E. Kramer
Through binoculars, the Ukrainian soldiers can see the Russian position far in the distance. But the single artillery weapon they operate at a small, ragtag outpost on the southern steppe has insufficient range to strike it.
These circumstances have imposed a numbingly grim routine on the Ukrainians, who are pounded daily by Russian artillery salvos while having no means to fight back. Every few hours, they dive into trenches to escape shells that streak out of the sky.
“They have our position fixed, they know where we are,” said Sgt. Anatoly Vykhovanets. “It’s like we are in the palm of their hand.”
As President Volodymyr Zelenskyy makes almost daily pleas to the West for heavier artillery, it is positions like the one here on the west bank of the Dnieper River that most illustrate how critical that weaponry is for Ukraine. Military analysts say the battle now is riding not so much on the skill or bravery 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 lopsided in Russia’s favor that Ukrainian officials have specifically highlighted the region to Western officials and member of the U.S. Congress in their appeals for more military support.
In response, Western allies have been trying to rush artillery systems and associated equipment into Ukraine, and it is starting to arrive. But not as quickly as Ukrainian officials have wanted, especially in places like this small outpost in the south.
The United States announced plans to send 90 M777 howitzers, a system capable of shooting 25 miles with pinpoint accuracy, but it was only this week that the first one in this region was fired in combat, according to a video the military provided to a Ukrainian news outlet.
Other American weapons Ukraine is counting on include drones for spotting targets and correcting artillery fire and tracked armored vehicles used for towing howitzers into position even under fire.
On Monday, President Joe Biden signed the Lend-Lease Act, which would allow transfers of additional American weaponry to Ukraine, and on Tuesday night the House of Representatives approved a $40 billion aid package.
But for now at the outpost of Ukraine’s 17th Tank Regiment, in a tree line between two fields, the most soldiers can do is try to survive.
To do so, they appoint a listener around the clock. He stands, like a prairie dog on guard, in the center of the unit, listening for the distant boom of Russian outgoing artillery. The warning is “air!” Soldiers have about three seconds to dive into a trench before shells hit.
The Ukrainian army does fire back from artillery operating to the rear of this position but has too few weapons to dislodge the Russian gun line.
Occasionally, small units slip into this buffer zone to skirmish, and to call in artillery strikes on one another, using sparse tree lines as cover. “There is no place to hide,” said the commander of a reconnaissance brigade who is deploying units into these fights. He asked to be identified only by his nickname, Botsman.
“It’s like looking down at a chess board,” he said. “Each side sees the other sides’ moves. It just depends on what striking force you have. Everything is seen. The only question is, can you hit that spot?”
Soldiers on both sides call artillery guns that can do just that by a nickname, “the gods of war.”
Ukraine entered the war at a disadvantage. Russia’s 203-millimeter Peony howitzers, for example, fire out to about 24 miles while Ukraine’s 152-millimeter Geocent guns fire 18 miles. (Soviet legacy artillery systems, used by both sides, are named for flowers; Carnation and Tulip guns are also in play in the war.)
That’s why Ukrainians so desperately wants the American howitzers; their 25-mile range while firing a GPS-guided precision round would, in some places, tilt the advantage slightly back to them.
“The Russians have two advantages now, artillery and aviation,” said Mykhailo Zhirokhov, the author of a book about artillery combat in the war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, “Gods of Hybrid War.” “Ukraine needs artillery and anti-aircraft missiles. These are the critically important on the front.”
The Ukrainian military has insufficient quantity of even medium-range artillery, such as weapons that might hit back at the Russian gun line harassing the Ukrainian unit about 9 miles away. The Russians are in a rock quarry, visible through binoculars as a gray smudge in the distance.
Hundreds of craters pock the fields all around. The soldiers operate a short-range, anti-tank artillery gun of little use against the Russian position that is out of range.
But the soldiers still serve a purpose: They can stop a tank assault using their short-range anti-tank artillery weapon, preventing Russian advances — so long as they endure the daily barrages. So far, nobody in the unit has been wounded or killed. That leaves the front in stasis, following two months in which Ukrainian forces advanced about 40 miles in this area.
Russia cannot capitalize on its artillery superiority to advance. Its tactic for attacking on the open plains is to hammer the opposing positions with artillery, then send armored vehicles forward on a maneuver called “reconnaissance to contact” aimed at overwhelming what remains of the defensive line.
But because of Ukraine’s wealth of anti-armor missiles and weapons, Russia cannot advance and seize ground.
Ukraine, meanwhile, also cannot advance, though its tactics differ. The Ukrainian military relies on small unit infantry with armored vehicles playing only supporting roles. Though Ukraine could seize ground, it could not hold it or use it for logistical support for further advances, as any new territory would remain under Russian bombardment.
The planned Ukrainian advance in this area depends on the arrival of the M777 howitzers and other long-range Western artillery that can hit the Russian artillery in the rear. Then, Ukrainian infantry might advance under the artillery umbrella of these longer range systems.
Should more powerful artillery arrive, it could quickly tip the scales, said Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskyy’s chief of staff.
In the fighting on the west bank of the Dnieper River, Russia’s objective appears to be tying down Ukrainian forces that might otherwise shift to the battle for the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine’s goal, once it obtains artillery able to match the range of Russian guns, is to move over the fields to within striking range of two bridges and a dam crossing the Dnieper River in an operation that could cut supply lines of the Russian forces, Arestovich, the presidential adviser, said.
“We would do it with pleasure,” said Col. Taras Styk, a commander in the 17th Tank Brigade. “But now we have nothing that can hit them.”