Photos by Yasuyoshi Chiba. Video by Dylan Collins
As Russian forces regroup after being pushed back from their northeast positions, Ukrainian artillery crews are determined to give them no respite to build a new defensive front.
During Russia’s six-month occupation of part of eastern Ukraine, the war was dominated by an artillery duel in which Ukraine’s beleaguered defenders often found themselves under -armed.
But last month, in the northeast region of Kharkiv, Ukraine turned the tide with a series of tank and infantry offensives, with Kyiv forces outflanking and isolating Russian strongholds before defeating them. force a retreat.
But artillery still has a role to play, with gunners from units like the 14th Mechanized Brigade, named after Prince Roman the Great, surging forward, bursting out of cover to launch volleys of shells and rockets to harass Russian units behind the front line.
Supporters of President Vladimir Putin in Moscow have blamed their recent defeats on the West, arguing that the Russian military faces a mercenary army with a huge arsenal of NATO weapons – and that some advanced systems have in indeed been delivered.
But on Tuesday, the Ukrainian artillery unit operating in eastern Kharkiv was armed with a weapon used by Soviet and post-Soviet armies since 1963, a BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher mounted on a six-wheel truck Ural wheels.
For “Dmytro”, the 22-year-old small unit commander, the six-decade-old design is perfectly suited to the task at hand, firing high explosives at a concentration of spotted Russian troops gathered by a warehouse on the front line.
“In general, this Grad system is good enough for the mission, and I like working with it,” he told AFP.
They work in a team of six men. The unit leader receives the coordinates of the target by radio, while a driver moves the truck with its 40 missile tubes from its hiding place and onto exposed farmland, with clear skies between the launch site and the lines Russians.
The unit leader – equipped with a touchpad with map information – calculates the strike trajectory and calls it to the crew, who composes it by raising the launch tubes and rotating the launcher.
A series of deafening explosions and a first volley of 122 mm rockets sound. Then there is a brief pause as the team adjusts the pitcher’s elevation higher, then turns away as the second volley kicks up some gravelly dirt.
After the second noisy barrage, 15 of the launcher’s 40 missile tubes are empty.
From the field, the gunners cannot see the target, but Dmytro is convinced that they hit the Russian soldiers.
“They had a mission and if we managed to hit them, and I’m sure we managed to hit them, then they can’t fulfill that mission,” he said.