Ukrainian Artillery War on the Eastern Front Lines

Ukrainian soldiers hide under a tank as incoming Russian bombing targets their position near Lyman Road, Ukraine, on June 2, 2022 (Heidi Levin photos for The Washington Post).
Ukrainian soldiers hide under a tank as incoming Russian bombing targets their position near Lyman Road, Ukraine, on June 2, 2022 (Heidi Levin photos for The Washington Post). (Heidi Levine/FTWP)

On the way to Lyman, Ukraine – first came the distant blast of Russian artillery fire.

Then the ominous whistle and crackle of incoming shells, which fell 50 feet from the position of a Ukrainian tank, flying dirt, rocks, and deadly metal fragments into the air. The soil shook – boom, boom, boom.

Ukrainian troops sank under their tank and yelled at Washington Post reporters to take cover with them. Together, they pressed their bodies to the damp earth and grass, as Russian firepower rained down along this eastern front, where Moscow concentrates its military power and inflicts heavy losses on the superior Ukrainian forces.

“Get out from under here!” One of the soldiers shouted, realizing that the tank – although it served as temporary cover – was in fact a prime target. “Go! Go! Go!”

The group sped through the woods, while the tank was tumbling down a dirt road.

After the war between Russia and Ukraine reached its 100th day, it is now in a frustrating phase for many Ukrainian soldiers. They are reeling in the trenches of this coal-mining district from brutal Russian artillery attacks reminiscent of the brutality of World War I. In many places to make the Russians fight hard.

Russian forces kill up to 100 Ukrainian soldiers every day and wound up to 500 more on the Eastern Front, President Volodymyr Zelensky He said this week. At this rate, Ukraine would lose, in about two and a half months, many of the forces the United States lost in Iraq and Afghanistan over 20 years. In recent days, the Ukrainian territory has gradually fallen back on the Russian forces, who, according to Zelensky, now control 20 percent of the country.

“Russian artillery is firing from morning until evening,” said Volodymyr Pohoreli, 43, the intelligence chief of the Dnipro-1 battalion that occupies several key positions in the area. “If our team shoots someone in their path, we’ll recover 10 or 15 times.”

After the Russian army failed in its unsuccessful attempt to seize Kyiv and overthrow the Ukrainian government, it regrouped in the second phase of the war. Moscow redirected all the rest of its artillery to one area. The Kremlin hopes to achieve its new stated goal of capturing all of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions, which together include Donbass.

“In some ways, this is one war but two different campaigns,” said Michael Kaufman, a Russian military analyst with Virginia-based Central News Agency. The first was deciding whether or not Ukraine would survive as an independent country – and Russia decisively lost this conflict. … This second stage concerns the territory that the independent Ukrainian state will eventually control, and that remains highly contested.”

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Russia’s disastrous missteps and embarrassing retreat in the first phase of the war only strengthened the Ukrainian spirit and resolve. But the barbarism of concentrated Russian artillery fire made the second phase much more difficult for many Ukrainians in the trenches. The war saw relatively few infantry engagements or tank-to-tank battles. Instead, Russia is concentrating its overwhelming artillery on relatively small areas to carve its way forward down the path of massive destruction.

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He said that facing such artillery shelling is frightening and devastating to Ukrainian soldiers.

“The amount of firepower, the number of blasts, the length and duration of the attacks — all together, and the fact that you can’t defend against it, you can’t drop projectiles, means that there are a lot of victims and it’s incredibly frustrating,” Kagan said. This is where “shell shock” comes in.

Moscow is wiping out cities with distant artillery to reduce its losses and to take advantage of the strength of the Russian army as a force focused on artillery. But Kagan said Moscow also relied on these tactics because Russian forces had suffered casualties and disappointment from the first phase of the war and had shown they were unable to fight successfully otherwise.

Kagan said the losses incurred by Ukrainian forces are appalling, but they would not necessarily force Kyiv to surrender or “lose” the wider war. He noted that even if Russia took control of all of the Donbass region, which would be difficult due to Ukraine’s defenses, the Ukrainians still had forces that could counterattack and retake territory elsewhere. Ukrainian troops, for example, recently launched a counterattack near the occupied city of Kherson.

On Thursday afternoon, Ukrainian soldiers said the four shells that hit their position appeared consistent with cluster munitions. Such weapons are prohibited by an international treaty because of their ability to inflict indiscriminate damage in populated areas or leave unexploded ordnance because they spray “small bombs” over a wide area. Neither Ukraine nor Russia are signatories to the treaty.

No soldier or journalist was injured in the attack, which appeared to have come from the direction of Lyman, a small town recently taken over by the Russians.

Ukraine’s losses are mounting as Ukraine awaits more help from the West. Biden administration send Ukrainian M142 High Mobility Artillery Missile Systems, known as HIMARS, but US officials have said it will take about three weeks to train Ukrainian forces after they arrive. Russia has artillery with a longer range, which allows Moscow to strike Ukrainian forces from afar. Kyiv lacks such equipment and has less ammunition.

In interviews with nearly two dozen soldiers in recent days, many lamented their lack of sufficient ammunition, saying that they would not be able to hold off the Russians and retake Ukrainian territory without much help. Several soldiers contacted by phone on Friday said major bombing attacks were underway in key centers in Sloviansk and Bakhmut.

The situation was a challenge to Ukrainian military morale. Artillery shells cover a wide radius when they explode, sending life-threatening metal fragments in all directions. Russia also uses TOS-1A systems to launch thermobaric warheads, sometimes called vacuum bombs, which can kill soldiers even in trenches by releasing multiple pressure blast waves.

Bohorelli said that troops from his battalion fought for weeks to defend the city of Robijni, even as they waited for more Western aid. The Ukrainians eventually suffered heavy losses and were forced to retreat.

The city is located northwest of Severodonetsk, where Russian forces are fighting Ukrainian forces in the city center. If Moscow captures the city, the Kremlin will be able to boast that its forces control almost all of the Luhansk region.

“We need help,” Pohorilyy said. If it’s about foot soldiers versus foot soldiers, we can do something about it. But they are 10 kilometers away, just throwing bombs at us.”

Commanders said Russian forces are destroying roads and buildings as they advance, leaving fewer places for Ukrainian forces – or civilians – to take shelter.

“They don’t control a city until they destroy it,” Bohorelli said.

Captain Alexander Taranoshenko, 37, said that for three weeks his company had occupied a small position by the river that runs near Robyzhny, moving back and forth over a small footbridge separating it from Russian troops.

He said that in order to have any chance of pushing the Russians back, they would need heavy artillery, along with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

He said, “The city no longer exists.” The only thing left is our attitude. Everything is in ruins.”

Scenes of devastation and steadfastness from 100 days of war in Ukraine

The devastation caused by weeks of such Russian tactics has left civilians here in squalid conditions – some holed up in basements in besieged towns, others preparing for themselves in the coming weeks. Many civilians were wounded and killed in the raids.

And in several small towns scattered near the front lines, water, gas and electricity were cut off after strikes hit vital infrastructure. In Sloviansk, civilians, including the elderly, visit public pumps to fill jugs with water.

At an area hospital this week, soldiers spilled out of ambulances—many of them bleeding from visible shrapnel injuries.

Alexei Holovko, 29, belongs to the Dnipro-1 battalion, spent more than a month working as a doctor in the trenches in Roybezhny, where he said that at least 10 soldiers were wounded every day. Sometimes, he said, they get patched up and then head out to fight. The wounds were almost all from long-distance bombing.

He said, “We did not see the enemy in the eyes of many.”

Several commanders said that when troops witness the severity of these casualties, they can be more dangerous to morale than deaths on the battlefield.

“Wounded people can do psychological damage to the unit,” said Yura Beriza, 52, commander of the Dnipro-1 battalion. “They are screaming and horrified. The people who are supposed to be shooting should stop to help them.”

One morning, the battalion commanders, each overseeing a different main road in the Donetsk region, gathered in a war room at their temporary base. They were leaning against a large wooden table covered with paper maps, little triangles marking strategic locations.

Commanders were planning how to defend their dwindling territory as the Russians advanced, cutting off strategic supply routes and bombing major routes used by Ukrainian forces.

In the small town of Zolote, where troops said civilians were left without food and water, Russian forces surrounded the Ukrainians on three sides, the sergeant said. Yevhen Bazulin, 44, a company commander holding a position there. The Russians launched incessant bombardment of the Ukrainian forces, rendering them unable to move forward.

He said that one of his soldiers was killed so far, and eight others were wounded.

“They’re in Hell,” Briza shouted from the other side of the room.

Of his troops in Zolote, Pazulin said that the Russians “shoot everything at them.” “We don’t always understand where they are shooting from.”

He said that even after they’ve been heavily bombed, he’s sometimes left with no choice but to stay put and risk being hit again.

“I can’t go left or right because then I’ll have empty space,” he said. I can’t go ahead because there are Russians there. I can’t go back because I’ll quit then.”

Continued artillery attacks also challenge Ukraine’s ability to consolidate positions and hold existing territory.

On Wednesday, on a dirt road in a rural part of the Donetsk region, a small team of Ukrainian soldiers belonging to the Dnipro-1 battalion sat next to the trenches they had dug to attack tanks in the event of a further Russian advance.

Moments later, the roar of incoming artillery echoed in the sky. Then the shell whistle.

Troops scrambled toward the shelter, pushing the Washington Post reporters ahead of them into an underground bunker.

Over the next two minutes, two more shells exploded just outside, all within about 500 feet of the Ukrainians’ shelter.

As the sky cleared, a Ukrainian armored personnel carrier headed down the dirt road, with the tired soldiers suspended tightly as they fled the scene. The car crossed a main road and sped away, fleeing toward safety where – as the Ukrainian soldiers learned – nowhere is quite safe.

Sun reported from Washington. Yevin Simkhin contributed to this report.