With Western Weapons, Ukraine Is Turning the Tables in an Artillery War

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KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — On the screen of a thermal imaging camera, the Russian armored personnel carrier disappeared in a silent puff of smoke.

“What a beautiful explosion,” said First Lt. Serhiy, a Ukrainian drone pilot who watched as his weapon buzzed into a Russian-controlled village and picked off the armored vehicle, a blast that was audible seconds later at his position about four miles away.

“We used to cheer, we used to shout, ‘Hurray!’ but we’re used to it now,” he said.

The war in Ukraine has been fought primarily through the air, with artillery, rockets, missiles and drones. And for months, Russia had the upper hand, able to lob munitions at Ukrainian cities, towns and military targets from positions well beyond the reach 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 area, commanders and military analysts say.

Ukraine now has an edge in both range and in precision-guided rockets and artillery shells, a class of weapons largely lacking in Russia’s arsenal. Ukrainian soldiers are taking out armored vehicles worth millions of dollars with cheap homemade drones, as well as with more advanced drones and other weapons provided by the United States and allies.

The Russian military remains a formidable force, with cruise missiles, a sizable army and millions of rounds of artillery shells, albeit imprecise ones. It has just completed a mobilization effort that will add 300,000 troops to the battlefield, Russian commanders say, though many of those will be ill trained and ill equipped. And President Vladimir V. Putin has made clear his determination to win the war at almost any cost.

Still, there is no mistaking the shifting fortunes on the southern front.

Ukraine’s growing advantage in artillery, a stark contrast to fighting throughout the country over the summer when Russia pummeled Ukrainian positions with mortar and artillery fire, has allowed slow if costly progress in the south toward 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 in the predawn hours Saturday when Ukrainian drones hit a Russian vessel docked in the Black Sea Fleet’s home port of Sevastopol, deep in the occupied territory of Crimea, once thought an impregnable bastion.

The contrast with the battlefield over the summer could not be starker. In the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Russia fired roughly 10 artillery rounds for each answering shell from Ukrainian batteries. In Kherson now, Ukrainian commanders say the sides are firing about equal numbers of shells, but Ukraine’s strikes are not only longer range but more precise because of the satellite-guided rockets and artillery rounds provided by the West.

“We can reach them and they cannot reach us,” said Maj. Oleksandr, the commander of an artillery battery on the Kherson front, who like others interviewed for this article gave only his first name for security reasons. “They don’t have these weapons.”

Falling rates of Russian fire also speak to ammunition shortages, he said. “There is an idea the Russian army is infinite, but it is a myth,” he said. “The intensity of fire has fallen by three times. It’s realistic to fight them.”

A main highway approaching Kherson city from the west has become a thoroughfare for Ukrainian artillery, with towed howitzers, truck-mounted howitzers and trucks laden with grad rockets rumbling by continually through the day.

American-provided M777 howitzers firing precision-guided shells and striking up to 20 miles behind Russian lines have forced the Russians to stage heavy equipment farther from the front. Ukrainian drones spot infantry but fewer tanks or armored vehicles near the front line, said First Lt. Oleh, the commander of a unit flying reconnaissance drones. “We hear a lot of rumors they are abandoning the first lines of defense.”

This firepower has tipped the balance in the south, raising expectations that a long-anticipated assault on Kherson is drawing near — though a swirl of apparent misdirection from military leaders on both sides has clouded the picture.

The terrain around the city — table-flat steppe with thin tree lines and little cover, and crisscrossed by irrigation canals that can be used as trenches — favors its Russian defenders. And Ukrainian commanders and officials have been dropping hints of an impending attack since the spring, only to have the fighting drag on.

But the city lies on the west bank of the Dnipro River, making its defenders reliant on bridges to Russian territory on the eastern bank that now lie within easy range of Ukrainian rocket artillery and, for the most part, are now unusable. That has made the Russian grip precarious. But President Putin has reportedly overruled his generals’ recommendations of a retreat to safer and more easily defended ground on the east bank.

The question remains just how long the Russian forces can, or will, hold out in Kherson.

“Russia is unable to maintain logistics supplies” to the west bank of the Dnipro, said Konrad Muzyka, a military analyst and the director of Rochan Consulting, based in Gdansk, Poland. He added that the Ukrainian military’s claim to have achieved the upper hand in artillery and frontline drone strikes in the south was “highly plausible.”

After a recent Ukrainian assault using American M777 howitzers and High Mobility Artillery Rockets, Slovak Zuzana self-propelled artillery and Polish Krab self-propelled artillery, Mr. Muzyka said, citing Ukrainian military sources, heavily battered Russian artillery positions on one section of the Kherson front went silent for more than 48 hours.

A recent drone attack led by Lieutenant Serhiy provided another example of the Russian forces’ vulnerabilities.

Equipped with night-vison goggles — an essential item of modern warfare that the Russian forces generally lack — the soldiers drove to the front line in an SUV with the headlights off, passing the jagged ruins of houses in a destroyed village silhouetted by a thin sliver of the moon.

Rattling under the driver’s seat were eight small bombs, each packed with a pound and a half of high explosives, enough to obliterate an armored vehicle. In the rear storage area sat a high-end, commercially available drone.

From a rooftop position, two former computer programmers turned tank hunters directed drone strikes that took out two Russian armored vehicles in the space of about three hours, destroying more than a million dollars of Russian weaponry with a weapon that cost about $20,000.

After each flight, the drone buzzed back a few minutes later, unscathed.

This drone system, called Perun, one of dozens used by the Ukrainian military, swoops in at an altitude of about 500 feet, hovers directly over a target and releases its bombs.

The drones are audible from the ground but still effective, Lieutenant Serhiy said, as the Russian forces “don’t have much time” to shoot them down. It cannot be flown in all weather, and sometimes misses. “The technology is not perfect,” he said, “but it works when it works.”

Farther from the front line, out of drone range, American-provided, satellite-guided artillery shells have forced the Russian military to carefully camouflage or pull back heavy equipment, said Lieutenant Oleh, the commander of a drone surveillance unit.

“Russia’s advantage was only one thing: quantity,” Lieutenant Oleh said in an interview at his base, a house along a muddy lane in a village. The inside was crammed with screens, laptops, cables and batteries. A strip of flypaper dangled from the ceiling.

Sitting in front of his screens, he pinpoints tanks, barracks or other military objects and relays coordinates to artillery teams firing satellite guided shells, which hit within a yard or two of their intended targets.

“From a typical howitzer, you create a sniper rifle,” he said of the combination of drone surveillance and satellite guided artillery shells, something Russia lacks. “One shot, one kill.”

The partial destruction of bridges over the broad Dnipro River through the summer slowed Russia’s movement of heavy equipment to the river’s western bank, even as Western weaponry helped Ukraine whittle away at what was already there. The combination cost Russia its artillery advantage on the river’s western bank.

“Think of the orcs in their trenches,” Lieutenant Oleh said, using a derisive term for Russian soldiers. “They have no heavy weaponry, no supplies, it’s cold and raining. It’s a really difficult state for morale.”

If they try to hold out in Kherson city, he said, referring to a protracted battle with the Nazis in World War II, “it will be Stalingrad in winter for them.”

While the messaging and movement of forces around Kherson on both sides have been hard to decipher, by design, there is no mistaking which side has the momentum.

Major Oleksandr, the commander of the Ukrainian self-propelled howitzer battery, said he had the sense of 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.

Ukraine’s buildup of forces could also be a trick, he said.

“The plans of our leadership are always unpredictable,” Major Oleksandr said, “and I like it that way.”

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

Sumber: www.nytimes.com

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