“This particular one is from 1987,” said Pirbudagov, 34, as he rubbed the cowl of a 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzer. “There are old people. It’s actually one of the “newer” pieces.
As Western countries began to send better weapons to Ukraine, they can be slow to arrive, leaving some units, like Pirbudagov’s 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, to fight with leftovers from the Soviet era. They require a lot of repairs, he said, and hard-to-find parts. On the other side of the front line, Pirbudagov’s enemy often uses the same type of howitzer, but is 15 years newer and has a bigger barrel.
New artillery systems tend to traveling to artillery brigades or high-priority locations, such as the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where the fighting has been heaviest. But the disparity between military units is also a result of the fact that Ukraine is still waiting for much of the weaponry it has been promised.
The United States and Germany, for example, had, as of July 1, provided less than half of the military aid they had announced, according to data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, which has been monitoring of country contributions and deliveries arms to Ukraine.
While Ukrainian officials are grateful for any security assistance – Washington alone has provided more than $8 billion since the start of the Biden administration, with billions more to come — they also expressed frustration with the delays at a critical time in the war when Moscow appears vulnerable. Richard Moore, the head of Britain’s intelligence services, said last week that Russia is likely to “run out of steam” in the coming weeks due to shortages of manpower and equipment.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, noted “the extreme difficulty that Russian forces routinely have in capturing small, relatively insignificant pieces of ground during weeks or months of fighting. These limitations will increase as Russian units continually degrade when assaulting small villages.
With Russian troops stretched along a vast front that stretches across most of Ukraine’s eastern and southern border, the Ukrainians have had the most success reclaiming territory along the southern axis. – a counter-offensive which is vital to improve Ukraine’s position in any future negotiations on the end of the conflict. .
But Pirbudagov and other soldiers from his self-propelled artillery unit near the front line in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region said they were unable to advance with the weapons at their disposal. — the best they can do is stay in their current position. Pushing the Russians back just five miles in two months would be considered good progress.
“We really hope that very soon we will attack,” said Pirbudagov.
War has become a game of cat and mouse between artillery units. Each side uses drones for reconnaissance, which identify attack targets. For the Ukrainians, this means keeping their weapons constantly camouflaged and moving quickly. Their main Russian targets are artillery and ammunition depots – anything that could reduce Moscow’s considerable arms advantage. Modern Russian howitzers have systems that can automatically correct for terrain and weather factors, making them more accurate than Ukrainian ones, which have to be adjusted manually.
Ukrainians stuck with Soviet-era artillery also lack ammunition, as old howitzers use cartridges of different calibers that are hardly produced outside of Russia. This means that Ukrainian soldiers must be more selective with their targets, while the enemy can fire indiscriminately – up to five times more, according to the men of Pirbudagov’s unit. Enemy vehicles and infantry in hiding, they said, were probably not worth the number of shells it would take to smoke them out in the open.
Russia targeted Ukrainian ammunition to weaken Kyiv on the battlefield
“There are days when it’s calm, the sun is shining and it’s hot,” said Victor Troshky, a gunner with the 128th Brigade. “And sometimes we get 80 to 100 shells an hour.”
Troshky was a professor at Uzhhorod National University in western Ukraine – he has a doctorate in physical and mathematical sciences – when Russia invaded on February 24. As a teacher, he was exempt from military service, but still went to fight. When he has a stable internet connection, he always accompanies his students through their studies, often writing down an algorithm on a piece of paper, taking a photo and texting it to them. His commander asked him to tutor his 12-year-old brother.
Math skills can help with artillery strategy, he said, but there are limits that cannot be overcome. While Russia can – and often does – fire at will, the Ukrainians say they are trying to be more careful, both to conserve their shells and to protect civilians living under occupation. Russian forces often position themselves in populated areas as a form of cover.
“Hitting an accurate target with a single shot is not that easy,” Troshky said. “A little further to the left or right there could be a residential building.”
He and other members of his unit occasionally study the types of newer artillery systems they may soon receive – anything that might expedite eventual training. Exactly what they’ll get, and when the guns come, is anyone guessing.
“We might also get something,” said Mykola Bezkrovnyi, Troshky’s deputy commander. “We have what we have, but there are a large number of similar artillery systems from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland that they can pass on to us to replace those that have been destroyed.”
The 128th Brigade recently received a new modern piece of equipment: its members seized an enemy BMP-3 combat vehicle with less than 5,000 miles on it. They took it to a makeshift auto shop for repairs and plan to repaint the Russian brand’s “Z” symbol on the front and sides. Soon, they said, he will be back on the front line – and on their side.
Lesia Prokopenko contributed to this report.