A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jul 27, 2022

As Ukraine Waits For New NATO Weapons, It Effectively Uses Soviet Leftovers

Doing an impressive job with what they have or can capture from the Russians. JL 

Isabelle Khurshudyan and Serhiy Morgunov report in the Washington Post:

While Western countries are sending better weapons to Ukraine, they can be slow to arrive, leaving some units to fight with Soviet-era leftovers. They require a lot of repair, and parts that aren’t easy to find. Modern howitzers can automatically correct for terrain and weather, making them more accurate than Ukraine’s, which have to be adjusted manually. Ukrainian soldiers must be more selective with their targets, while the enemy can fire indiscriminately. The new artillery systems tend to go to artillery brigades or to higher-priority locations, such as eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. “Hitting a precise target with a single shot is not that easy.”

Ali Pirbudagov’s weapons are parked under the cover of trees and camouflage nets. They’re all older than he is, dating back to a time when Ukraine and Russia fought together in the Red Army. Now, Pirbudagov has to use them against Russian troops attacking with more-modern equipment.


“This particular one is from 1987,” said the 34-year-old Pirbudagov as he rubbed the hood of a 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzer. “There are older ones. This is actually one of the ‘newer’ pieces.”

While Western countries have started sending better weapons to Ukraine, they can be slow to arrive, leaving some units, like Pirbudagov’s 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, to fight with Soviet-era leftovers. They require a lot of repair, he said, and parts that aren’t easy to find. On the other side of the front line, Pirbudagov’s enemy is often using the same kind of howitzer, but it’s 15 years newer and has a bigger gun.

The new artillery systems tend to go to artillery brigades or to higher-priority locations, such as eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, where fighting has been most intense. But the disparity between military units is also the result of Ukraine still waiting on much of the weaponry it has been promised.

The United States and Germany, for example, had as of July 1 delivered less than half of the military aid they have announced, according to data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, which has been tracking countries’ contributions and deliveries of weapons 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’ve also voiced frustration with the delays during a critical juncture of the war when Moscow appears vulnerable. Richard Moore, the chief of Britain’s intelligence service, said last week that Russia is likely to “run out of steam” in the coming weeks, amid shortages of manpower and materiel.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, noted the “extreme difficulty Russian forces regularly have capturing small and relatively insignificant bits of terrain over weeks or months of fighting. These limitations will grow as Russian units continually degrade themselves during assaults on small villages.”

 

With Russia’s troops stretched along a vast front that spans most of Ukraine’s eastern and southern boundary, the Ukrainians have had the most success reclaiming territory along the southern axis — a counteroffensive that’s vital to improving Ukraine’s position in any future negotiations on an end to the conflict.

But Pirbudagov and other soldiers in his self-propelled artillery unit near the front line in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region said they are unable to advance with the weapons they have — the best they can do is hold their current position. Pushing the Russians back by just five miles over two months would be considered good progress.

“We really hope that very soon we are going to attack,” Pirbudagov said.

The war has become a cat-and-mouse game between artillery units. Each side uses drones for reconnaissance, which identify targets for attack. For the Ukrainians, that means keeping their weapons constantly camouflaged and moving quickly. Their main Russian targets are artillery and ammunition depots — anything that will make a dent in Moscow’s significant weapons advantage. Russia’s modern howitzers have systems that can automatically correct for terrain and weather factors, making them more accurate than Ukraine’s, which have to be adjusted manually.

 

Ukrainians stuck with Soviet-era artillery are also running short on ammunition, because the older howitzers use different caliber rounds that are scarcely produced outside Russia. That means Ukrainian soldiers must be more selective with their targets, while the enemy can fire indiscriminately — up to five times as much, according to the men in Pirbudagov’s unit. Enemy vehicles and infantry in a hideout, they said, are probably not worth the number of shells it would take to smoke them out into the open.


“There are days when it’s calm, the sun is shining and it’s warm,” said Victor Troshky, an artilleryman in the 128th brigade. “And sometimes we get 80 to 100 shells per hour.”

Troshky was a professor at western Ukraine’s Uzhhorod National University — he has a PhD in physical and mathematical sciences — when Russia invaded on Feb. 24. As a professor, he was exempt from military service, but went to fight anyway. When he has a stable internet connection, he still coaches his students on their studies, often jotting down an algorithm on a piece of paper, snapping a picture of it 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 limitations that can’t be overcome. While Russia can — and often does — fire at will, the Ukrainians say they try to take greater care, 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 a precise target with a single shot is not that easy,” Troshky said. “A bit further to the left or to the right there could be a residential building.”

He and others in his unit occasionally study the types of newer artillery systems they could soon receive — anything that might speed up the eventual training. Exactly what they will get, and when the weapons will arrive, is anyone’s guess.

“We might get something, too,” said Mykola Bezkrovnyi, Troshky’s deputy commander. “We have what we have, but there is a huge number of similar artillery systems from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland that they can pass to us to replace ones that have been destroyed.”

The 128th brigade did get one new piece of modern equipment recently: Its members seized an enemy BMP-3 combat vehicle with less than 5,000 miles on it. They drove it to a makeshift auto shop for repairs, and plan to paint over the Russians’ trademark “Z” symbol on the front and sides. Soon, they said, it will be back on the front lines — and on their side.