Pokrovsk, Ukraine – The weapon that Ukraine hopes will make a decisive difference in its war with Russia is camouflaged in a pile of boughs cut from nearby trees, invisible from a few meters away.
Soon, a single shot rang out with a metallic shriek and a howl as it sailed toward the Russian positions.
It is an American-made M777 howitzer. It shoots farther, moves faster and is more easily concealed, and this is what the Ukrainian army was waiting for.
Three months into the war in Ukraine, the first M777 – the most lethal weapon the West has offered to date – has been deployed to combat in eastern Ukraine. Their arrival boosted Ukraine’s hopes of achieving artillery superiority at least in some frontline areas, a major step toward achieving military victories in a war now fought mostly on flat and open steppes over long distances.
American howitzers are massive machines made of steel and titanium, covered with hydraulic hoses and mounted on four brackets that fold up and down. Ukrainian commanders said they had already fired hundreds of shells since their arrival on May 8, destroying armored vehicles and killing Russian soldiers.
“This weapon brings us closer to victory,” Colonel Roman Kashur, commander of the 55th Artillery Brigade, whose unit was the first to deploy the weapon, said in an interview. Blending confidence with the tacit plea for more guns, he added, “With every modern weapon, every precision weapon, we’re getting closer to victory.”
Western military analysts say how close he is is still unclear. The arrival of new weapons is not a guarantee of success, as the Russians continue to fight fierce fighting in the eastern Donbass region. A lot depends on the numbers.
“Artillery is very much a quantitative trade,” said Michael Kaufman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia, in a phone interview. “The Russians are one of the biggest artillery armies you can face.”
The United States said weeks ago that it would provide the howitzers, but their use in combat has so far been hinted at in online videos posted by mostly unknown soldiers. On Sunday, the military gave the New York Times a tour of a rifle line in eastern Ukraine, in the first independent confirmation by international media of the weapons’ use.
Military analysts say the full effect will not appear for at least another two weeks, because Ukraine has not yet trained enough soldiers to fire all 90 howitzers pledged by the United States and other allies. There are now only about a dozen rifles in the front.
Arming Ukraine with more powerful weapons is a politically sensitive issue. The United States, France, Slovakia, and other Western countries have been quick to use artillery and support systems — such as drones, anti-battery radar, and armored vehicles to tow guns — even as Russia accuses the West of fighting a proxy war in Ukraine, threatening unspecified consequences if arms shipments continue. .
Disagreements over how to confront Russia so forcefully have emerged in the Western alliance. France, Italy, and Germany suggested that Ukraine use the influence of more powerful weapons to press for a ceasefire that could lead to a negotiated withdrawal of Russian forces.
Ukrainian officials backed down. They insist that the momentum is on their side and that talks should come only after victories on the battlefield and reclaiming territory – once an almost unimaginable idea that became more defensible after the Ukrainian army caused multiple setbacks for Russia even before the arrival of Western heavy weapons.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview with Ukrainian TV over the weekend, said that a diplomatic solution would come only after additional military victories for Ukraine, along with an influx of weapons. The Ukrainian army has pushed back Russian forces from Kyiv and from positions near Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, but is now under heavy pressure in a limited battle for control of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.
“It’s like a car, not gas-powered, or electric, but a hybrid,” he said of ending the war with a mixture of military gains and talks. “And this is how it is: War is complex.”
“Victory will be bloody,” said Zelensky.
In any case, diplomatic talks stalled about a week ago, the two sides said, and the outcome returned to the battlefields. And not everything went the way of Ukraine. Russian forces are now close to besieging the city of Severodonetsk, threatening to encircle Ukrainian forces.
“I am amazed that people believe that Ukrainian forces can absorb this level of losses and then prepare to go on the offensive immediately afterwards,” said analyst Mr. Kaufman.
However, the new Western artillery with a longer range is the most powerful and destructive of the many types that NATO countries now offer. They fire three miles further away than the most common artillery system the Russian military used in the Ukraine war, the Msta-S self-propelled howitzers – and another 10 miles if they fire a GPS-guided precision shell.
On the open eastern plains, a long drive through potholed roads and dirt tracks ends with jeeps spinning rapidly in the tree line.
Secrecy is paramount in the cat-and-mouse artillery duels that defined the war in recent weeks. Soldiers waste no time stacking freshly cut twigs on vehicles, as camouflage against enemy drones.
In artillery duels, soldiers value not only the range but the ability to quickly hide and move guns and supporting vehicles.
Since its deployment two weeks ago, 12 or so howitzers operating in two artillery batteries by Sunday fired 1,876 rounds, according to Ukrainian officers.
With a combination of aerial detonation, anti-personnel shrapnel rounds, and other types of projectiles, Ukrainian artillery destroyed at least three Russian armored vehicles, and, according to Colonel Kashur’s estimation, killed at least a dozen Russian soldiers.
At the firing line in the trees, boxes of empty ammunition and empty shots littered the middle of the craters. Kalashnikovs leaned on tree trunks.
The officers did not say what they were targeting.
He said the guns are intended to destroy Russian positions and military infrastructure, such as ammunition depots and command posts. Ukrainian soldiers say howitzers will also save civilian lives by pounding Russian artillery fire into their towns.
Ukrainian artillery officers said that Western artillery types flowing into Ukraine now have many advantages over the old Soviet systems. Chief among them is their compatibility with NATO-caliber shells, alleviating fears that Ukraine may soon run out of Soviet-standard ammunition currently made in Russia.
In addition to the weapons sent by the United States, the French were promised Caesar truck-mounted howitzers, which could drive quickly away after firing in a maneuver known as “shoot and go.” Slovakia also pledged howitzers.
But the US M777, known as the Triple Seven, is likely to have the most influence on the amount of weapons supplied, providing accurate, long-range fire when enough crews are trained to use it, military analysts say.
The bottleneck is training. The United States has so far trained about 200 Ukrainian soldiers in six-day training sessions at bases in Germany. The Ukrainian army divided this group almost in half, sending some to the front and others to train more Ukrainians. Mikhailo Zhirukhov, author of a book on artillery in Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed separatists, “Mixed Gods of War,” said soldiers’ training in all 90 weapons — the amount due to arrive — could take several more weeks.
Mr. Zhirukhov said small numbers of computer-controlled Caesar self-propelled guns from France would also help, but learning to use them would take months. “Even the French think they’re too complicated,” he said.
After the soldiers fired at the M777, the pistol returned to a horizontal position, and the barrel of the gun was covered with camouflaged branches. “Move faster!” Officer shouted. The crew ran after that, in case the Russians had located them.