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Russo-Ukrainian War: On the frontlines, waiting for Western weapons and with only three seconds to protect yourself

Through binoculars, Ukrainian soldiers can see the Russian position in the distance. But the only artillery gun they wield at a small outpost in the southern steppe It doesn’t have enough range to attack it.

These circumstances have imposed a sleepy routine on the Ukrainians, who are hit daily by Russian artillery salvos without having the means to fight back. Every few hours they dive into the trenches to escape the shells that fall from the sky.

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

While President Volodymyr Zelensky makes almost daily requests to the West for heavier artillery, it is positions like this one, on the west bank of the Dnieper River, that most illustrate how critical such weaponry is to Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut, in the east of the country. AFP Photo

Military analysts say that the battle does not depend so much on the skill or courage of the Ukrainian soldiers, but on the precision, quantity and the attack power of long-range weapons.

The Russian advantages

The artillery capacity of the two armies near Pryvillia is so lopsided in Russia’s favor that Ukrainian officials have specifically singled out the region to Western officials and members of the US Congress in their calls for more military support.

In response, Western allies are trying to speed up delivery of artillery systems and associated equipment to Ukraine, and they are starting to arrive. but not so fast as Ukrainian officials would have wanted, especially in places like this small outpost in the south.

The United States announced its plans to send 90 M777 howitzers, a system capable of firing 40 kilometers with millimeter precision, but it was not until this week that the first was fired in this region in combat, according to a video that the military provided to a media outlet. ukrainian

Other US weapons that Ukraine has are drones to detect targets and correct artillery fire and tracked armored vehicles used to tow howitzers into position, even under fire.

On Monday, President Joe Biden signed the Lend-Lease Act, which would allow more US weapons to be transferred to Ukraine, and the House of Representatives passed an aid package on Tuesday night. of 40,000 million dollars.

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

To do this, they appoint a listener 24 hours a day. He stands, like a prairie dog on guard, in the center of the unit, listening to the distant roar of the outgoing Russian artillery. The warning is “on the air!”. Soldiers have about three seconds to dive into a trench before the shells hit.

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

Throughout the war, the Ukrainian military demonstrated extraordinary success in outmaneuvering and defeating Russian forces in the north, based on stealth and mobility to execute ambushes against a larger and better equipped army. But in southern Ukraine, in an area of ​​flat agricultural fields cut by irrigation canals, the Ukrainians are fighting a different war.

Out on the steppe, the fluidly swirling front lines of the two armies are miles or tens of miles apart, over an expanse of gigantic fields of yellow canola, green winter wheat, plowed under black soil, and small villages. .

little protection

From time to time, small units slip into this buffer zone to skirmish, and to call in artillery strikes on each other, using the sparse rows of trees for cover. “There is no place to hide”, said the commander of a reconnaissance brigade that deploys units in these combats. He asked to be identified only by his nickname, Botsman.

“It’s like looking at a chessboard,” he said. “Each side sees the other’s moves. It just depends on how strong an attack you have. It all shows. The only question is can you hit the target?”

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

Ukraine entered the war at a disadvantage. Russian 203-millimeter Peony howitzers, for example, fire up to about 24 miles, while Ukrainian Geocent 152-millimeter guns they shoot 18 miles. (Artillery systems inherited from the Soviet Union, used by both sides, are named after flowers; the Carnation and Tulip cannons are also at play in the war.)

That is why the Ukrainians desperately want American howitzers; its 25-mile range while fire a precision-guided round by GPS would slightly tilt, in some places, the advantage for them.

“The Russians now have two advantages, artillery and aviation,” said Mykhailo Zhirokhov, author of a book on artillery combat in the war against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, Gods of Hybrid War. hybrid warfare). “Ukraine needs artillery and anti-aircraft missiles. These are the most important in the front.”

The Ukrainian army does not have enough of even medium-range artillery, such as weapons that can strike 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 blur in the distance.

Hundreds of craters dot the surrounding fields. The soldiers wield a short-range anti-tank artillery gun, of little use against the Russian position that is out of their reach.

“Tie”

But the soldiers are still useful: they can stop a tank assault using their short-range anti-tank artillery weapon, impeding Russian advances, as long as they withstand daily bombardment. So far, no one from the unit has been injured or killed. This leaves the front dead centerafter two months in which the Ukrainian forces advanced about 40 miles in this area.

Russia cannot take advantage of its artillery superiority to advance. Their tactic for attacking on the open plains is to hammer opposing positions with artillery, then send armored vehicles forward in a maneuver called “contact recognition”intended to overwhelm what remains of the defensive line.

But due to Ukraine’s abundance of missiles and anti-armor weapons, Russia cannot move forward and take the ground.

Ukraine, for its part, cannot advance either, although its tactics are different. The Ukrainian army is based on small infantry units and armored vehicles only perform support functions. Although Ukraine could take land, it would not be able to hold it or use it as logistical support for future advances, as any new territory would come under Russian bombardment.

The planned Ukrainian advance in this area depends on the arrival of M777 howitzers and other long-range Western artillery that can hit the Russian artillery in the rear. So the Ukrainian infantry could advance under the artillery umbrella of these longer-range systems.

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

In the fighting on the west bank of the Dnieper River, Russia’s goal appears to be to pin down Ukrainian forces that might otherwise go into battle for the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s goal, once it obtains artillery capable of matching the range of Russian guns, is to advance over the fields to within range of two bridges and a dam that span the Dnieper River in an operation that could cut the supply lines of the Russian forcessaid Arestovich, the presidential adviser.

“We would be happy to do so,” said Colonel Taras Styk, commander of the 17th Tank Brigade. “But now we don’t have anything that can hit them.”

New York Times

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