Military briefing: Ukraine switches to artillery power for eastern push

The losses from Ukraine’s much vaunted counteroffensive were heavy and early. Pushing into the country’s sprawling southern fields earlier this summer, Kyiv lost almost a fifth of Nato kit provided for the operation, according to Ukrainian and western officials.

Kyiv’s military response across much of the frontline is now becoming clear: to change tactics. The shift in fighting doctrine applied in recent weeks, according to Ukrainian commanders, appears to be achieving some hard-fought but tangible results on the battlefield, at a more tolerable cost.

Rather than dart across Russian minefields aiming to punch through enemy lines with Nato armour, Ukrainian forces have moved their focus to pounding Russian defensive positions with heavy artillery fire.

Artillery gunners operating multiple-launch rocket systems and howitzers, some loaded with US-supplied cluster munitions, aim to clear pathways for small teams of sappers and infantry units. These troops then attempt to advance methodically on foot, moving forward one narrow tree line at a time in a select few spots along the 1,000-kilometre front line.

“We strike the enemy, then our infantry advances,” said Viktor, a battery commander in a Ukrainian artillery unit operating American M777 howitzers, bluntly describing the new strategy between attacks. “We prepare the conditions on the ground so that our troops suffer minimal losses.”

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The painstaking strategy has raised questions in western capitals about whether Ukraine will be able to maintain it for long, or produce the kind of military breakthrough that would bring Moscow to the negotiating table. There are concerns about how quickly Ukraine’s military is expending its dwindling supply of artillery shells, and about the time it will grant Russia to dig in and train fresh forces. 

But in the short term, the tactic has reduced Ukrainian losses. Casualties and the number of prized western battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles lost in battle are down compared with the first two weeks of the counteroffensive, while Ukraine has made small but steady gains.

Ukraine also hopes the tactic will find and develop openings that can be exploited by an armoured assault. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday night praised “very good results” on the frontline, without providing details.

Viktor’s artillery unit provided covering fire for infantry that pushed into the northern and southern flanks of Bakhmut, the bombed-out eastern city that was captured by Russia’s army in May after a gruelling 10-month fight. Ukraine claimed further advances on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Recapturing Bakhmut is an objective for Ukraine, even if the destroyed city that was once home to 70,000 residents is of little strategic value. Commanders believe the prospects of a breakthrough are better there than along the southern front line. It would likely also deal a blow to Russian morale.

Russian forces did not have time around Bakhmut after capturing the city in late May to erect the fortifications laid down in southern Ukraine. There, a miles-deep network of minefields, “dragon’s teeth” obstacles, anti-tank ditches and trenches have kept Ukrainian troops at bay.

Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian leaders have acknowledged slow progress, while also stressing the counteroffensive is far from finished. Many of Ukraine’s western-trained and equipped brigades are yet to be sent into battle. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Ukraine had started the main thrust of its assault in the south, citing US officials.

Some reserves have already been quietly committed in the south, according to Sultan, a commander in the 78th Regiment, a special forces unit, and other soldiers who spoke to the Financial Times near the front line in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia. 

Ukrainian military man a command centre near Bakhmut
A Ukrainian command centre that coordinates the movement of military working on the front line © Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Two soldiers involved in early operations, who asked not to be named, said they faced stiffer resistance than expected from the Russians, resulting in the losses of American Bradley fighting vehicles and western-supplied engineering equipment. They also said many “inexperienced” troops were “unprepared” for the complex assault despite receiving western training. 

The troops described “chaos” in the early days of the operation: friendly fire incidents and attacks that quickly devolved into rescue operations after being halted by minefields, anti-tank rockets and Russian Ka-52 helicopters. 

Sultan, who spoke to the FT while recovering from a concussion sustained during a mine blast, complained that his special forces unit was now being forced to fight “like regular infantry” to help fill a void left by brigades that took heavy losses early in the counteroffensive.

“We should be four to eight guys doing reconnaissance and doing operations behind enemy lines. But we are being told, ‘you have to fight like everyone else now’,” he said. That has meant advancing slowly and methodically over wide-open fields where Russian forces can easily spot them with drones. Luckily, he said, Ukraine’s artillery has “covered our arses”.

Ukrainian artillerymen load missiles onto a self-propelled multiple rocket launcher
BM-21 Grad multiple-launch rocket systems are among the artillery being deployed by Ukraine © Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images

“We liberate 1 to 2 sq km of our territory every day,” Colonel Vlad Voloshyn, a military press officer, told the FT during a visit to a unit operating Soviet-era BM-21 Grad multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) near Soledar, on the northern flank of Bakhmut. 

The Russians, he said, had taken up more “convenient positions” after taking Bakhmut, offering “new targets” for his artillery gunners. As Voloshyn spoke, soldiers removed tree branches from a Grad truck used to conceal it from Russian reconnaissance and suicide drones. 

Some Russian officers have lamented the Ukrainians’ recent success in the area and the inability of their own troops’ inability to respond to the artillery fire in kind. 

“The enemy’s [artillery] crews do not change positions for hours, working with impunity on our frontline, and we are not able to suppress them,” wrote Alexander Khodakovsky, a commander for Russian forces in Donetsk region, on his Telegram channel. He added his forces were taking heavy casualties.

Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Strategic Studies who recently visited the front line with Ukrainian officers, also said Moscow’s forces were struggling to respond to Kyiv’s artillery power. 

“Russian artillery rationing is real and happening,” he wrote on Twitter. “Ukraine has established fire superiority in tube artillery” — or howitzers — “while Russia retains superiority in MLRS in the south”.

But while Ukraine may be making headway in Bakhmut, the methods deployed are sobering for Kyiv’s leadership. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner mercenary group led Russia’s forces into a city pulverised by heavy artillery — using tactics similar to those the Ukrainian army is employing in the area.

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