Deep in a grove of trees near Ukraine’s eastern front lines, a group of soldiers hastily dismantle a pile of branches to reveal a long barrel below, aimed directly at the Russian border.
The men rush around the back of the M777 howitzer, loading its chamber with an artillery shell, then step back, fingers in their ears and gaping mouths to protect their eardrums, as a deafening explosion rings through the country.
They do this between 100 and 130 times a day, between the three M777s in this position, in a hidden location in the southern region of Kharkiv.
This week, Global News was escorted to the secret M777 location near the frontlines in Kharkiv to observe the long-range artillery in action. Canada sent a number of M777s to Ukraine in April as part of a $130 million support package, and has since sent millions more in replacement barrels and ammunition, among other lethal aid.
Long-range artillery became crucial in attempting to turn the tide of the war, allowing the Ukrainians to target Russian troops and locations from further away, thus preventing further strikes against Ukrainian forces.
“Artillery saves the blood of infantry. We need it to save troops,” Andriy, deputy battalion commander and gunner, tells us.
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Canada, the United States and Australia donated M777s used by Ukrainian soldiers in Kharkiv. These 155 millimeter towed howitzers have a range of up to 30 kilometers.
But to really make an impact, several soldiers say, they need more long-range artillery. While grateful for the weapons donated by the international community, the much-loved American-made high-mobility artillery rocket system, also known as HIMARS, is the goose that lays the golden egg.
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They have more than twice the range of the M777s – up to 70 kilometers. The United States has sent 16 to Ukraine so far.
But both systems were sent for the same purpose: to arm the Ukrainian army with more sophisticated Western weapons.
“Their weapons are Soviet weapons… and here ours are more technological, more professional,” explains Battery Commander Yevhen. “They are easier to use.”
The battalion doesn’t know which country its M777s come from, but it’s possible this one is at least partly Canadian — it was damaged and parts had to be replaced to fix it, Andriy says.
It destroyed “many” Russian weapons storage facilities, infantry, warehouses and “hidden command points”, the soldiers say.
Hidden artillery in rural Ukraine
The current location of the M777s is deep in farmland in eastern Ukraine, strategically hidden from view by thick shrubbery.
As we approach, Andriy, who is also the driver of our military escort, orders us to put our phones on airplane mode. Russian troops otherwise follow clusters of GPS signals to identify the locations of soldiers.
As you drive through the countryside, the scars and new landmarks that war has brought to this unassuming rural community are everywhere: a schoolhouse lies in ruins, with holes blown in its walls and roof, targeted by an attack in June; an unexploded rocket stung in a grove of trees; a crater in the road the size of a car inflicted by a Russian Uragan rocket.
At one point, we pass in front of a pile of barrels, pointing towards the sky. Fakes, says Andriy with a smile, which have managed to fool Russian drones in recent weeks.
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The real position of M777 is somewhere in the yellow pastures. We pass a Starlink satellite dish and descend into a grove of trees, where about twenty men have been camping for about a month.
They will move and settle in a new location when the Russians determine their location and respond with counter shells, says Battery Commander Yevhen.
The current position is a simple setting: a small tarp stretched between two trees to provide respite from the elements, several trenches dug into the earth, and a few planks of wood fashioned into a counter, where the soldiers boil water on a single burner. gas stove and ceramic bowl for us to make coffee. Empty propellant cylinders were recycled to build shelters. The loud “booms” of artillery fire can be heard nearby.
About 50 yards away, one of the M777s is lying in wait under a pile of branches, propellant containers and ammunition stored beside it between the trees.
Yevhen traveled to Germany to receive training in the operation of the weapon. He then returned and taught his troops how to use it in about two weeks, he says. This is not the first time they have fought together – this battalion was previously stationed in the Donbass.
They have now been using the M777s for three months and were one of the first battalions in Ukraine to receive them.
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Yevhen says the weapon is light, accurate and easy to camouflage and has worked well supporting infantry on the front lines.
He said he was grateful for Canada’s continued support.
In June, Defense Minister Anita Anand announced the provision of 10 replacement barrels for the M777s as part of a $9 million military aid package. Canada also earlier sent some 20,000 artillery shells, worth $98 million, which work with weapons sent by NATO allies, including the M777s.
However, given the choice, a delivery of HIMARS systems would make more of a difference, Yevhen says. While M777s must be towed behind a vehicle, the HIMARS system is self-propelled, sitting on a wheeled chassis, which means it is more mobile. The crew can drive the HIMARS to a new location before the enemy has a chance to retaliate.
The M777s can also only fire one round at a time, whereas the HIMARS system can fire multiple rounds at once.
While the United States has armed Ukraine with more HIMARS systems, it has stipulated that the weapon cannot be fired on Russian territory, fearing it will be considered foreign interference and escalate the war.
Poland and the Baltic states have also recently placed multi-million dollar HIMARS orders to bolster their defense systems.
The lines blur between military life and rural life
Meanwhile, the Ukrainians have been digging for the long haul.
Here in this community, normal village life and the top-secret military location now housed there have become intrinsically linked.
Less than a few hundred meters from the position of the M777s, a farmer is in his tractor tending to his crops. Combine harvesters plow the fields. Two older men on bicycles pedal down the dusty road, fishing rods propped up on their handlebars. A shirtless man rides down the road on top of a trike. A family salutes military vehicles from the side of the road. Men in military uniforms relax outside a small store, smoking and chatting.
Ammunition has to be delivered every day, he explains, so military vehicles are now commonplace here.
The locals don’t seem to care; Andriy waves at them all as he walks past, and they respond to him.
Nearby, rows of sunflowers – Ukraine is the world’s largest exporter of sunflower oil, and it’s also the country’s national flower – shroud the countryside in a bright yellow glow.
It’s a cruel juxtaposition to the brutality of the war raging nearby.
As he drops us off at our meeting place, Andriy bids us farewell with a blunt message.
“I hope that our next meeting with you will take place in the main square of Moscow,” he said. “After our victory.”
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