Artillery vehicle

One Village at a Time: The Relentless Artillery War in Ukraine

The Ukrainian major had a few tasks to complete as he circled the front line of his army battalion. A platoon commander needed anti-tank weapons. Another wanted to show a new line of trenches his forces had dug following a recent Ukrainian advance.

But as he drove between positions in his camouflaged armored van near the town of Derhachi, time passed. A Russian surveillance drone hovered overhead, observing, sending coordinates back to Russian artillery units, the major said. About 20 minutes later, at least three shells rained down, forcing the Major and his team to hurry.

“They are better,” said the major, named Kostyantyn. “They know our positions, but they saw the car coming and started shooting.”

The Russian front lines north of Kharkiv have been stagnant for more than a month. But over the past few days, Ukrainian forces have advanced out of the city, launching a concerted offensive north and east that began with heavy shelling and an infantry assault supported by tanks and soldiers. other armored vehicles.

Although the gains were modest, they are emblematic of both Ukrainian and Russian strategy as the war enters its third month: a slow grind that focuses on one village at a time and relies primarily on drones and concentrated artillery fire.

These weapons, capable of launching ammunition from outside the direct line of sight of opposing forces, have become the mainstay of the war following the Russian defeat around kyiv, where long columns of troops and tanks were visible targets vulnerable to ambushes. Without them, Ukrainian and Russian units can neither advance nor really defend themselves.

The back-and-forth maneuvers are taking place in eastern Ukraine – both as Russian forces advance in the Donbas region and as Ukrainian forces attempt to force Russian artillery units out of range from Kharkiv, a sprawling city 40 km from the Russian border.

“It’s a positional war, an artillery war,” said Kostyantyn, who declined to give his last name for security reasons.

This dynamic has been playing out for days in Ruska Lozova. The town, just north of Kharkiv, was declared liberated by the Ukrainian army late last month, although fleeing enemy soldiers have been replaced by artillery shells and terrified residents continue to evacuate .

The Russian drones, namely the small Orlan 10, which looks like a lawn mower, proved to be a deadly and loitering presence. The drone’s ability to identify Ukrainian positions for Russian artillery batteries means that every foot of ground gained around Kharkiv faces heavy shelling.

“They have an Orlan hanging in the sky, they see the positions, target them and fire,” Kostyantyn said.

Residents who fled fighting in the nearby village of Ruska Lozova arrive in Kharkiv, Ukraine on May 2. | TYLER HICKS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Ukrainians have their own drones – many of which are small over-the-counter types – capable of delivering similar results.

The Russians occupied Ruska Lozova, a pre-war town of about 6,000 people, in mid-March, residents and Ukrainian military officers said, after being pushed back from Kharkiv in previous weeks. It is not known how many Russian soldiers were garrisoned there, although locals estimate there were hundreds given the number of vehicles in the town.

Ruska Lozova is a pleasant suburb of one-story houses, crossed by the Lozovenka River. Many of its inhabitants are avid hunters in nearby forests and open fields. But the city’s strategic military importance lies in its hills, which provide a direct line of sight to Kharkiv, several kilometers away.

Once they took Ruska Lozova, the Russian soldiers positioned artillery on high ground and began firing into Kharkiv. To the north and east of the city, the Russian soldiers set up other artillery positions in the neighboring villages and extended the bombardment. The Ukrainian army returned fire from artillery positions in and around the city which were staggered to ensure some were out of range of their Russian counterparts.

The result was a duel between weapons like multiple rocket launcher systems, some with ranges of around 20 miles; howitzers, with a range of about 13 miles; and heavier mortars, capable of launching shells about 5 miles.

“Both sides use artillery to deprive the other of the ability to maneuver,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “And they associate it with drone-based intelligence.”

For the Ukrainians, recapturing Ruska Lozova became a priority, a means of relieving pressure and shelling 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 to suppress and eliminate Russian artillery around the town before advancing. Residents of Ruska Lozova said that when Ukrainian troops arrived in late April, the shelling was relentless.

The rubble of a house destroyed by a bombardment in Ruska Lozova, Ukraine, Wednesday |  TYLER HICKS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
The rubble of a house destroyed by a bombardment in Ruska Lozova, Ukraine, Wednesday | TYLER HICKS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

“Every house is damaged; everything is burning. He is reduced to a pulp,” said Natalia Chichyota, 41, the day after Ruska Lozova was released.

At least two civilians were killed there during the occupation.

Tanks and armored personnel carriers followed the Ukrainian artillery barrage, Kostyantyn said, explaining that mechanized troops were able to move more easily after Russian artillery was all but silenced and moved.

“After suppressing their firing points with the artillery, our vanguard entered,” he said, adding that Russian air support arrived soon after.

Residents said the Russians used airstrikes that left large craters, particularly around one of the town’s churches, but were nowhere near as frequent as artillery fire.

What followed after Ukrainian tanks and infantry entered the city is not entirely clear. Residents said the first Ukrainian soldiers arrived in front of their homes around April 26. Ruska Lozova was declared released on April 28. The Russian retreat, by all accounts, was relatively orderly.

Meanwhile, Kostyantyn said, there was a “rifle battle” around the town between Ukrainian and Russian troops, a rare event at this stage of the war, which had mainly involved artillery fire, rockets and mortars.

“Now we are digging trenches there, they are shooting at us with artillery from another village,” Kostyantyn said.

The Russian artillery retreats to a village further north called Pytomnyk. The bridge over the main road that connects the two cities has been rendered inoperable, which will likely delay any further Ukrainian advances.

“And like that, village after village, we push them back from Kharkiv,” Kostyantyn said.

As Russian artillery begins to roar, a volunteer helps lead an elderly woman and her walker to a waiting van as residents evacuate Ruska Lozova, Ukraine on Wednesday.  |  TYLER HICKS / THE NEW YORK TIMES
As Russian artillery begins to roar, a volunteer helps lead an elderly woman and her walker to a waiting van as residents evacuate Ruska Lozova, Ukraine on Wednesday. | TYLER HICKS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

The major did not reveal the number of Ukrainian casualties suffered in the battle, nor divulge any estimate of the number of Russians wounded and killed. But any kind of offensive operation like the one to capture this city almost certainly results in casualties on both sides.

Ruska Lozova may have been freed from Russian forces for now, but the war has barely subsided. Like so many other cities in Ukraine, it is trapped in the “grey zone” – the land between Russian and Ukrainian forces – and subject to frequent bombardment.

“The 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, the shooting begins.”

In recent days, a large part of the remaining population has fled to Kharkiv. Some are picked up by humanitarian aid convoys of volunteers driving their own sedans, minibuses and vans around the destroyed city.

One such errand happened this week when Oleg and Mykola, volunteers from a Baptist church in Kharkiv, drove their white 1996 Mercedes van to Ruska Lozova. They rushed into town, looking for families who wanted to evacuate and handing out bags of food to those who wanted to stay.

It was only towards the end of their hour-long mission, as several people piled into the van, that the Russian artillery began to howl – one round after another closing in on their vehicle in slow motion as they struggled to fold an older woman’s walker and load luggage into the back. The passengers crossed their hearts and prayed.

That’s what being liberated meant in this chapter of artillery warfare, in which the front line is defined not so much by trenches as by the range of guns on either side.

They drove back towards Kharkiv, the aging van heaving to climb the hill that had once been an ideal vantage point for the Russian forces. It was Oleg’s seventh trip to Ruska Lozova since Ukrainian troops recaptured the town.

“Today was a good day,” he said, his face impassive, after returning to town. “It was pretty quiet.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2022 The New York Times Company

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