KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — On the screen of a thermal imaging camera, the Russian armored personnel carrier disappeared in silent smoke.
“What a nice explosion,” said 1st Lt. Serhiy, a Ukrainian drone pilot who saw his gun buzzing through a Russian-held village and took off the armored vehicle, an explosion that was audible seconds later at his position about 4 miles away. .
“We used to clap, we used to shout, ‘Hurray!’ but we are used to it now,” he said.
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The war in Ukraine has been fought primarily by air, with artillery, rockets, missiles and drones. And for months, Russia has had the upper hand, able to launch munitions at Ukrainian towns, villages and military targets from positions far beyond the range of Ukrainian weapons.
But in recent months the tide has turned along the front lines in southern Ukraine. With powerful Western weapons and deadly homemade drones, Ukraine now has artillery superiority in the region, according to commanders and military analysts.
Ukraine now has an advantage in range and precision-guided rockets and artillery shells, a class of weapons largely absent from Russia’s arsenal. Ukrainian soldiers fly out of armored vehicles worth millions of dollars with cheap homemade drones, as well as more advanced drones and other weapons supplied by the United States and its allies.
The Russian military remains a formidable force, with cruise missiles, a sizable army, and millions of artillery shells, albeit inaccurate. It has just completed a mobilization effort that will add 300,000 troops to the battlefield, Russian commanders say, though many of them are poorly trained and ill-equipped. And President Vladimir Putin has made clear his determination to win the war at almost any cost.
Yet there is no doubt that fortunes are changing on the southern front.
Ukraine’s growing advantage in artillery, a stark contrast to the fighting across the country over the summer when Russia hit Ukrainian positions with mortar and artillery fire, allowed for slow but costly progress in the south towards the strategic port city of Kherson, the only provincial capital that Russia managed to occupy after invading in February.
The new capabilities were on display before dawn on Saturday when Ukrainian drones hit a Russian vessel moored in the Black Sea Fleet’s home port of Sevastopol, in the heart of occupied Crimea, once considered a impregnable stronghold.
The contrast to the battlefield over the summer could not be starker. In the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Russia fired about 10 artillery shells for every response shell from Ukrainian batteries. In Kherson now, Ukrainian commanders say the sides are firing roughly the same number of shells, but Ukraine’s strikes are not only longer range but more accurate due to satellite-guided rockets and shells. artillery supplied by the West.
“We can reach them and they cannot reach us,” said Major Oleksandr, commander of an artillery battery on the Kherson front, who, like other people interviewed for this article, gave no than his first name for security reasons. “They don’t have those weapons.”
The drop in Russian firing rates also speaks to ammunition shortages, he said. “There is an idea that the Russian army is infinite, but that’s a myth,” he said. “The intensity of the fire has been divided by three. It is realistic to fight them.
A main highway approaching the city of Kherson from the west has become a thoroughfare for Ukrainian artillery, with towed howitzers, truck-mounted howitzers and trucks loaded with Grad rockets continuously rumbling along of the day.
US-supplied M777 howitzers firing precision-guided shells and striking up to 20 miles behind Russian lines forced the Russians to place heavy equipment further from the front. Ukrainian drones spot infantry but fewer tanks or armored vehicles near the front line, said 1st Lt. Oleh, commander of a unit flying reconnaissance drones. “We hear a lot of rumors that they are abandoning the first lines of defence.”
That firepower has tipped the scales in the south, raising hopes that a long-awaited assault on Kherson is drawing near – though a whirlwind of apparent false directives from military leaders on both sides has clouded the picture. .
The terrain around the city – a flat steppe with thin lines of trees and little cover, and criss-crossed by irrigation canals that could be used as trenches – favored its Russian defenders. And Ukrainian commanders and officials have been hinting at an imminent attack since the spring, only for the fighting to drag on.
But the city lies on the west bank of the Dnieper, making its defenders dependent on bridges to Russian territory on the east bank which now lie within range of Ukrainian anti-rocket artillery and, for the most part, are now unusable. This made the Russian hold precarious. But Putin reportedly reversed his generals’ recommendations for a retreat to safer and more easily defended ground on the eastern bank.
It remains to be seen how long the Russian forces can or will hold out in Kherson.
“Russia is unable to maintain logistical supplies” on the west bank of the Dnieper, said Konrad Muzyka, military analyst and director of Rochan Consulting, based in Gdansk, Poland. He added that the Ukrainian military’s claim to have taken the lead in frontline artillery and drone strikes in the south was “very plausible”.
After a recent Ukrainian assault using US M777 howitzers and high-mobility artillery rockets, Slovak Zuzana self-propelled artillery and Polish Krab self-propelled artillery, Muzyka said, citing Ukrainian military sources, positions of Heavily battered Russian artillery on a section of the Kherson front went silent for more than 48 hours.
A recent drone attack led by Serhiy provided another example of the vulnerability of Russian forces.
Equipped with night vision goggles – an essential part of modern warfare that Russian forces typically lack – the soldiers drove to the front line in an SUV with the headlights off, driving past the jagged ruins of houses in a silhouetted destroyed village by a thin sliver of the moon.
Eight small bombs slammed under the driver’s seat, each containing 1.5 pounds of high explosive, enough to obliterate an armored vehicle. In the rear storage area was a commercially available high-end drone.
From a rooftop position, two former computer programmers turned tank destroyers led drone strikes that destroyed two Russian armored vehicles in the space of about three hours, destroying more than $1 million worth of Russian weapons with a gun that cost around $20,000.
After each flight, the drone returned a few minutes later, unscathed.
This drone system, called Perun, one of dozens used by the Ukrainian army, swoops down to an altitude of about 500 feet, flies directly over a target and drops its bombs.
The drones are audible from the ground but still effective, Serhiy said, because Russian forces “don’t have much time” to shoot them down. It cannot be flown in all weathers and sometimes misses. “Technology isn’t perfect,” he said, “but it works when it works.”
Farther from the front line, out of drone range, US-supplied satellite-guided artillery shells forced the Russian military to carefully camouflage or remove heavy equipment, said Oleh, the commander. a drone surveillance unit.
“Russia’s advantage was only one thing: quantity,” Oleh said in an interview at his base, a house along a muddy lane in a village. The interior was stuffed with screens, laptops, cables and batteries. A strip of fly paper hung from the ceiling.
Sitting in front of his screens, he spots tanks, barracks or other military objects and relays the coordinates to artillery teams who fire satellite-guided shells, which strike within a meter or two of their targets.
“From a typical howitzer you create a sniper rifle,” he said of the combination of drone surveillance and satellite-guided artillery shells, which Russia lacks. “One shot, one kill.”
The partial destruction of bridges over the wide Dnieper River over the summer has slowed the movement of heavy equipment from Russia to the west bank of the river, even as Western weaponry has helped Ukraine reduce this who was already there. The combination cost Russia its artillery advantage on the west bank of the river.
“Think of the orcs in their trenches,” Oleh said, using a derisive term for Russian soldiers. “They have no heavy weapons, no supplies, it’s cold and it’s raining. It’s a really tough state for morale.
If they try to hold their ground in the city of Kherson, he said, referring to a protracted battle with the Nazis during World War II, “it will be Stalingrad in winter for them.”
While the messages and movement of forces around Kherson from both sides have been difficult to decipher, by design there is no doubt which side has the momentum.
Oleksandr, the commander of the Ukrainian self-propelled howitzer battery, said he felt from the Russian lines that “if we shake them, they will disintegrate”. But he was also aware of the possibility of deception, with the Russians trying to lure Ukraine into a premature advance by falsely signaling a willingness to withdraw.
Strengthening Ukraine’s forces could also be a ruse, he said.
“Our leaders’ plans are always unpredictable,” Oleksandr said, “and I like it that way.”
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