‘It’s hard, but they’re holding on,’ On the ground in Ukraine, the war depends on U.S. weapons

Written by on February 22, 2023

ON A UKRAINIAN POSITION ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF BAKHMUT – The Ukrainian military commander pointed to a small, cellar-door-like opening tucked into the snow-covered hillside and said, “If I say to you ‘run,’ you run into the forest and hide in there.”

“In there” was a shelter in the event of a Russian attack, a normal occurrence here. 

The lieutenant colonel is a bearded, barrel-chested and battle-hardened 39-year-old artillery commander. His first name is Oleksandr but “Fury” is his call sign or nickname for sensitive military communications. Like all military personnel spoken to for this story, he did not want last name or the units he commands to be identified. 

Fury paused, then added, “You’ll have less than a minute.” 

Friday, Feb. 24, marks a grim milestone: one year since Russia invaded Ukraine. 

During this time, the U.S. pledged about $113 billion in assistance to Kyiv, more than half in the form of military aid, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Infantry arms and equipment, air defense systems, missiles, helicopters, drones, armored vehicles, radar and communications antennas, satellite imagery, trucks, trailers, coastal patrol boats, the list goes on. The first batch of U.S. Abrams tanks destined for Ukraine are expected to arrive as early as this year. American-made F-16 fighter jets have been on Ukraine’s wish list since the start of Russia’s unprovoked invasion. As of now, the U.S. has not agreed to give them to them.

Amid domestic struggles ranging from spiraling living costs to rising refugee arrivals, polls show Americans are growing less enamored with providing arms to Ukraine.

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Yet Ukrainian military officials say U.S. weapons are making all the difference. To show how, a senior Ukrainian military intelligence officer and several special forces soldiers guided USA TODAY in mid-February to a secret location on a ridge a few miles outside the frontline town of Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s mineral-rich eastern Donbas region.

“This weapon changed the trajectory of the war for us,” said Fury as he stood on frozen ground near what he regards as one of the Ukrainian military’s most prized possessions: an American-made M777 howitzer, a powerful, towable and easily hidden long-range artillery weapon his unit had named “Sofiyka.” Made of steel and titanium, its hydraulic hoses and pumps enable its artillery turret to slide in and out with relative ease. 

Sofiyka was backed against a thicket of trees, its cannon aimed toward Bakhmut. 

A few hours earlier, another howitzer operated by Fury’s unit named “Krishna,” located on an adjacent ridge, had been fired on by a Russian shell.

It had not sustained any damages. “It’s a day spent in vain here if you haven’t been fired at,” said Fury, chuckling to himself. As he spoke, there was a deep thud as Krishna sent an explosive payload sailing toward Russian targets in Bakhmut.

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A side view of an American-made M777 howitzer artillery weapon, minutes before it fired on Russian positions in Bakhmut, a Ukrainian city in the Donbas region. Photo date: Feb. 11, 2023.

How long can Ukraine and Russia keep fighting? 

Russian military manpower and equipment reserves are significantly depleted and it’s unclear if Moscow has enough power to launch a major, sustained new offensive, either timed to the anniversary or in the coming months, according to military analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

An offensive that would, for example, enable Russia to capture and hold new territory, as Ukraine did when it reclaimed dozens of its settlements in Kherson and Kharkiv, in the south and northeast, this past fall, forcing a hasty Russian retreat. 

“Ukraine has repelled numerous Russian advances, protected its territorial integrity, effectively used newly acquired weapons’ systems provided by NATO and maintained, maybe even improved, national morale,” said Jeffrey Levine, a former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, a former Soviet republic that shares a border with Russia.

But Ukraine’s military is still preparing for one. 

In fact, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that a predicted Russian spring offensive has likely already begun. He has ruled out any peace deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin that would sacrifice Ukrainian territory, saying recently that it would “make us weaker as a state” and Russia “would keep coming back.”

Since the war’s start, Ukrainian civilians have endured innumerable forms of tragedy. Millions have fled abroad or been internally displaced. Russian missile strikes have damaged or destroyed Ukraine’s railways, apartment buildings, hospitals, schools.

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In every corner of the country, Ukrainian engineers are engaged in a Sisyphean battle to repair missile-hit energy infrastructure. The United Nations has verified a total of 7,155 civilian deaths during the invasion. More than 50,000 war crimes allegations have been reported to Ukraine’s chief prosecutor’s office, from brutal rapes to inexplicable murders.

But it is in Bakhmut and other places along the 600-mile frontline that Ukraine’s military has endured some of the war’s fiercest and most intense battles. And American weapons have been integral to the fight, according to “Biker,” the call sign of a senior Ukrainian special forces commander whose unit has been using American-made Switchblade 300 drones to attack Russian troops here. 

“If you ask me what we need, we need more Switchblades,” he said.

Biker’s call sign is a reference to his fondness for motorcycles.

He has been in the military for most of his life. But immediately before the war, he worked as a close protection bodyguard for wealthy Ukrainian businessmen.

He did not want his first name, age or even rank identified because he commands a unit that he said the “Russians are hunting for.”

One evening northwest of Fury’s position, in an industrial plant that Ukraine’s military is using as a base for elite units to sleep in, Biker explained how the Switchblade 300, which can be carried in a backpack, works.

It launches from a tube. Its small wings and an electric propeller then unfold. It flies to a target monitored via a tablet and special software. Then it dive-bombs kamikaze-like to its prey and detonates an explosive warhead. 

A laptop shows a video clip of a Russian soldier targeted by an American-made Switchblade 300 drone, in eastern Ukraine. The video clip is not dated. Photo was taken Feb. 11, 2023.

“It’s one of the most stable and precise weapons we have,” Biker said of the Switchblade, which has been dubbed a “suicide” drone.

Ukraine has been using them since the summer. 

“But we don’t have enough of them,” he added, swiveling his head in the direction of a cylindrical container that housed one of the killer drones.

“So we reserve them for ‘special occasions.’”

In May, the U.S. Department of Defense committed to sending 700 Switchblade 300 drones to Ukraine. Biker said for his current mission he had been allotted five. 

That morning his unit was doing reconnaissance about a mile away from the point of contact between Ukrainian and Russian troops in Bakmut.

In fact, one of his team’s regular tasks was to provide target coordinates to the American M777 howitzers firing on the town from the ridge. 

At the base, Biker played some video clips of his unit’s work using the Switchblade 300 to take out Russian targets. In one, the grainy color footage showed the drone plummeting from sky height before crashing into the chest of Russian solider in a trench. The Russian soldier appeared to be operating a mortar, a light-weight artillery weapon. The screen saver on Biker’s laptop was emblazoned with the official seal and emblem of the U.S. Department of the Army. 

‘It’s like fighting from World War I’

Ukrainian soldiers describe the death and destruction in Bakhmut as “hell,” a place where Russia’s military is using convicts as cannon fodder for incremental gains.

If there’s a sustainable strategy by Moscow, military analysts have been unable to detect it. Britain’s Ministry of Defence has described a Russian capture of Bakhmut as having “limited operational value” and primarily a “political objective.”

However, Bakhmut is an important symbol of Ukrainian resistance, and holding onto it for Ukraine could prevent a Russian advance to the larger eastern cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, British intelligence assessments have concluded. 

The city lies in ruins. 

Blasts ring out day and night. What trees remain are shredded. Craters from exploded artillery dot the roads. There is no power or water. Bakhmut’s prewar population of 70,000 has shrunk to a few thousand – mostly elderly civilians who refuse to leave, though some families with children have stayed behind.

A local resident walks along a street in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 10, 2023.

In early February, a Russian missile slammed into a van in Bakhmut carrying humanitarian volunteers, unleashing a massive fireball, and killing Peter Reed, an experienced paramedic and former U.S. Marine.

The Russian attack in Bakhmut has been relentless. 

“Some guys in our military are having mental health problems because the Russians have been coming at us every half hour and we just mow them down again and again with machine guns. It’s like fighting from World War I,” said the senior Ukrainian military intelligence officer who accompanied USA TODAY to the hillside position outside Bakhmut occupied by units under Fury’s command.

The officer asked not to be named for security reasons.

Ukraine, too, has suffered heavy losses. 

“It’s hard, but they’re holding on,” Zelenskyy said of the situation in Bakhmut and ​​Vuhledar, another frontline town, in the southern part of Donbas, on Feb. 15.

In recent days, Zelenskyy has insisted that the “Russian Goliath” will fall this year, comments echoed by Ukraine’s top military intelligence in an exclusive interview. 

“Russia has wasted huge amounts of human resources, armaments and materials this past year,” Maj. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, of Ukraine’s defense intelligence, said in Kyiv. “Its economy and production are not able to cover these losses. It’s changed its military chain of command. If its military fails in its aims this spring, it will be out of military tools.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine is lobbying U.S. and European allies for more heavy weapons. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has warned the war is increasingly becoming a “battle of logistics” and has said the military alliance should step up its supply of ammunitions to help Ukraine.

In a surprise visit to Kyiv on Feb. 20, U.S. President Joe Biden reiterated a pledge to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” Standing alongside Zelenskyy, Biden said “Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now.” Biden said he would send more military aid to Ukraine, including more American howitzers. Yet other prominent voices in the West, such as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, have cautioned that the world risks “sleepwalking” into a wider war with Russia.

‘The Russians hate it. They can’t hear it coming.’

Still, getting an accurate picture of what is happening on the frontlines is difficult. Information is often incomplete. Or classified. Things can change quickly.

Or seem not to at all. 

In mid-February, Russian forces appeared to control the main roads to the north, east and south of Bakhmut. The approach to Fury’s ridge position was from the west, down a slender lane that snaked through muddy fields, sparse woodland, down-at-heel villages. 

In one village, a young girl, perhaps 10 or 11, in a bright pink jacket and with a big smile beaming across her face, rode her bike down one side of a road she shared with several military vehicles. Her dark hair billowed behind her. Nothing on the girl’s face suggested concern about her proximity to the broken city a short distance away. 

A U.S Humvee tactical vehicle produced for the U.S. Army is seen near the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, in the Donbas region, on Feb. 11, 2023.

Farther away from Bakhmut, to the west and south, Ukraine’s rear lines were a hive of activity: supply trucks, fuel tankers, old Soviet-style tanks, personnel carriers, armored vehicles of various kinds donated from Australia or the Czech Republic. 

Stopped by the side of one road, a sand-colored American Humvee, indicating prior use in Iraq or Afghanistan, was being towed for repair. Many of these vehicles bore the hallmarks of battle. They were shot-up or caked in thick, dried dust and mud.

Scores of exhausted-looking, but good humored, soldiers in full combat gear loitered at gas stations to pick up cigarettes and snacks and make phone calls. 

Earlier that day, members of a Ukrainian special forces unit named “Signum” demonstrated how they use an MK-19, a lightweight American-made automatic grenade launcher first developed for use during the Cold War. It can hit targets over a mile away and burn through lightly armored vehicles. It is far quieter than its Russian counterpart. 

Special forces soldiers from Ukraine's "Signum" unit demonstrate the use of an American-made MK-19 grenade launcher in Ukraine's Donbas region on Feb. 11, 2023.

“The Russians hate it. They can’t hear it coming,” said one of its operators.

His call sign was “Guard.” 

“We just love it.”

‘Ears! Cannon!’

Back on the ridge above Bakhmut, Fury is in charge of six of the 142 M777 howitzers that the U.S. Department of Defense has committed to sending to Ukraine. 

A number of other countries including the U.K., Denmark, France and Germany have also transferred their own versions of this artillery weapon to Kyiv.

Soviet-era howitzers used by both sides are also firing thousands of shells each day at Ukrainian and Russian positions along the frontline. 

After his security briefing in which he instructed a reporter to quickly scramble to the shelter if he deemed it necessary, Fury stood to one side and watched several soldiers as they built a second shelter, aimed at guarding Sofiyka against Russia’s own kamikaze drones, called “Lancet.”

The shelter appeared to be made of wood and a simple camouflage net. 

Fury said that as much as he wanted to oblige a visitor by shooting some artillery toward the enemy, that was unlikely to happen unless he received new coordinates for a target.

He asked a subordinate to make coffee. 

Several soldiers kept their eyes trained toward the sky. 

They were watching for Russian drones. 

If they appeared, they would probably look like bright white spots. 

Difficult to see in a winter-palette setting of light blue sky and snow. 

In the near-distance, a loud metallic thud erupted.

“Krishna,” Fury said, with confidence.

GPS-guided shells used by an American-made M777 howitzer are seen on the ground near the artillery weapon near a frontline position held by Ukraine's military on Feb. 11, 2023.

It is not uncommon for the M777 to fire 200 shells in one day. 

Fury’s unit was the second one in Ukraine to receive the American howitzers, in May, and his six howitzers have collectively fired about 60,000 projectiles, he said. 

Its shells are GPS-directed and they have a maximum firing range of about 26 miles. 

By midday, Sofiyka had unleashed about 60. 

Discarded behind the weapon were several wooden pallet boxes, for shells or other components, stamped with serial numbers and a location: Wausau, Wisconsin.

The next day, Fury planned to send one of his close aides on a 20-hour roundtrip drive to Kyiv to meet volunteers who might have some much-needed spare parts for maintenance.  As much as Ukraine needs more foreign weapons, it also needs back-up parts to keep the ones it has in its arsenal going.

Often this means a little creative improvisation. 

All of a sudden there was a burst of radio activity coming from the hillside shelter. 

The coordinates of a new target in Bakhmut had been called in. 

“Ears! (cover them). Cannon! (stand back)” a member of Sofiyka’s gun crew shouted. 

The weapon’s hulking frame momentarily convulsed. 

This time the metallic sound was deep and sharp, and followed by smoke. 

Over the next few minutes more shells were fired. 

Each time: “Ears! Cannon!”

Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery at Russian positions near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2022.

Down in the shelter, Fury’s deputy, Viktor, call sign “Forsage” – a reference, he said, to a military fighter jet’s maximum speed, achieved through jet-engine thrust; an afterburner. He was hunched over a laptop watching in real-time where the shells had landed.

“Impact,” said Forsage. 

He pointed to what looked like Russian soldiers scrambling for cover as a plume of rubble and smoke projected upwards from a dense cluster of houses.

“We hit a building where there is direct-fire contact between their guys and our guys,” he said. “There’s so many more of them than us we’re trying to suppress their infantry fire.”

Forsage gave another order through the radio to Sofiyka’s gun crew: “One more.”

The interior of the shelter was somewhat incongruous to the scene outside. 

Woody scents of bark and earth wafted from the beams that spanned the ceiling. Persian-style rugs and blankets covered a few bunks. In the far corner, a wood burning stove had a small sign affixed to it that said it was donated from someone in Sweden named “Lisa J.” The stove emanated a smoky enveloping heat.   

It was an inviting space.

But it didn’t seem like it would offer much protection if hit directly.

“Better than nothing,” a solider chimed in. 

Another burst of radio activity. 

Ukrainian air defenses had shot down a Russian drone that was hovering along the position between Krishna and Sofiyka. It was not clear if it was an armed one. 

But the M777s may have been spotted. 

A retaliation could be on the way. 

“It’s best if you stay put in the shelter for the next 5-10 minutes,” Forsage said.

Then Fury gave a new command.

“No, it’s better if you getting moving away from here right now.”

Contributing: John Bacon

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