As Russian forces regroup after being pushed back from their north-eastern positions, Ukrainian artillery crews are determined not to give them any respite to set up a new defensive front.
During the six months of Russian occupation of part of eastern Ukraine, the war was dominated by an artillery duel in which the besieged defenders of Ukraine were often outgunned.
But over the past month Ukraine in the northeastern Kharkiv region turned the battle on its head with a series of offensives led by tanks and infantry, with Kiev’s forces flanking and isolating Russian bastions before forcing them to retreat.
But there’s still a role for artillery, with gunners from units like the 14th Mechanized Brigade, named after Prince Roman the Great, taking a leap forward, leaping from cover to fire volleys of shells and rockets to to harass Russian units behind the front line.
Blaming the West for their recent defeats, supporters of President Vladimir Putin in Moscow argue that the Russian army faces a mercenary army with a vast arsenal of NATO weapons – and some advanced systems have actually been delivered.
But on Tuesday, the Ukrainian artillery unit operating east of Kharkiv was armed with a weapon in service with Soviet and post-Soviet armies since 1963, a BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launcher mounted on a six-wheeled Ural truck.
– deafening bang –
For “Dmytro”, the 22-year-old commander of the small unit, the six-decade-old design is perfectly adequate for the task at hand, firing high-explosive explosives at a concentration of Russian troops gathered outside a warehouse on the other side of the line .
“In general, this grade system is good enough for the mission and I like working with it,” he told AFP.
They work in a crew of six. The unit commander radioed the target coordinates while a driver moved the truck with its 40 rocket tubes out of its hiding place into open farmland, under clear skies, between the launch site and the Russian lines.
The unit commander – equipped with a touchscreen tablet with map information – calculates the strike’s trajectory and calls it out to the crew, who dial it in, raise the launch tubes and slew the launcher.
A series of deafening bangs and a first salvo of 122mm rockets thunder away. There’s a brief pause as the team adjusts the launcher’s altitude higher, then turns away as the second salvo kicks up gritty earth.
After the second roaring barrage, 15 of the launcher’s 40 missile tubes are empty.
From the field, the gunners cannot see the target, but Dmytro is confident that they hit the Russian soldiers.
“They had a mission and if we managed to meet them, and I’m sure we managed to meet them, then they won’t be able to accomplish that mission,” he said.