Ukrainian troops firing an M777 howitzer.

Ukrainian troops firing an M777 howitzer.

Foto: STRINGER / REUTERS

The Artillery War in the Donbas Ukraine Relying Heavily on Heavy Weapons from the West

The war in Ukraine has morphed into an artillery battle, with Kyiv even more reliant than ever on heavy weaponry from the West. The country no longer has high hopes for significant support from Germany.

It’s a Sunday morning in June, somewhere on the expansive fields of the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine. A Ukrainian 2S1 howitzer emerges from one of the thick hedges that line the fields. The 15-ton, self-propelled gun from Soviet times – nickname: Carnation – rattles across a dirt track on its tracks before coming to a stop. Two soldiers jump out, sprint 50 meters and set up an aiming circle on a tripod. The battery commander barks the target coordinates and a cannoneer loads the weapon. With an ear-splitting roar, the gun fires off two rounds in rapid sequence before immediately moving off and disappearing into the brush, hidden from enemy drones.

It is a scene that is typical for the situation in which Ukraine currently finds itself. Almost four months after the Russian invasion, the war has transformed into an artillery duel. The fighting takes place across several kilometers against a frequently invisible enemy using heavy artillery. The goal is that of quickly firing off rounds before return fire begins raining down.

DER SPIEGEL 24/2022
Foto:

Mikhail Palinchak / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images / DER SPIEGEL

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 24/2022 (June 10th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

At the beginning of the offensive, when Russian troops began advancing in large columns from the north toward large Ukrainian cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv, the goal was that of luring the enemy into ambushes, where antitank weapons were waiting. Now, though, with the fight having migrated to the vast steppes of southern and eastern Ukraine, the battle has become more brutal, more unrelenting. Just like the battle fields on the Western Front in World War I, the fields of Ukraine are now being plowed up by the constant shelling. Courage, expertise and imagination are of little help when the necessary weaponry isn’t available.

"Artillery is the god of war," says Colonel Roman Kostenko, who is observing the operation of the 2S1 howitzer from nearby. It is a well-known quote, originating with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Kostenko says that artillery will also be decisive in the battle to the south. Kostenko is a Ukrainian parliamentarian, but he also commands a special unit that works closely together with the artillerymen. They conduct reconnaissance missions to locate Russian positions and then pass along the coordinates.

In a more recent development, they no longer have to rely exclusively on Soviet-era weaponry, but also have modern, Western equipment available. On one of the fields that is bristling with artillery, an M777 is firing off rounds toward the Russian lines. The United States has promised 108 of these howitzers to the Ukrainian military, along with 200,000 rounds of ammunition.

The howitzers are not self-propelled, instead being towed by other vehicles. But they only weigh four tons, making them both extremely mobile and easy to hide. Furthermore, the "Triple Seven" – called "Three Axes" by the Ukrainians – has a longer range than Russian artillery and uses standardized NATO shell sizes, which can be resupplied. Norway and France have also provided artillery.

Oleksiy Arestovych says the deliveries of Western artillery are "decisive." Without them, he says, "the enemy would now be storming Zaporizhzhia, they would have taken Lysychansk and would have surrounded Slovyansk." Arestovych is an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. "In close combat, battalion against battalion, we win," he says. "Our problem is that the enemy is firing at us essentially with impunity from a distance." That, he says, explains the high Ukrainian losses of up to 100 troops each day. Ukraine, he adds, ran out of ammunition for its own rocket launchers back in early April "aside from an untouchable reserve."

"The Russians Are Afraid of Them"

The Russians don’t have such problems. They possess plenty of artillery and munitions, and in contrast to the beginning of the war, they are concentrating all of their firepower on the Donbas. A Ukrainian commander on the eastern front has dubbed the approach "wall of fire." They lay down a blanket of artillery fire before every attack, allowing them to overwhelm the Ukrainian defenders. And the Russians aren’t likely to run out of munitions in the foreseeable future: "They are using stocks from the Soviet era, and the Soviets didn’t skimp when it came to arms." The commander is also full of praise for the new M777 howitzers. "The Russians are afraid of them," he says.

"These systems are having an enormous impact in the Donbas," agrees John Spencer, a military expert with the Madison Policy Forum think tank.

The Ukrainians are now awaiting the next delivery from the West. The U.S. intends to send four M142 HIMARS multiple rocket launchers. And the British have promised several M270 systems, a multiple rocket launcher with a range of up to 80 kilometers. That’s not only twice as far as the American howitzers, but it also slightly exceeds the range of comparable Russian systems. And the Germans have promised to deliver four MARS II systems by the end of June.

The Western rocket launchers have the ability to destroy enemy artillery from a great distance. And whereas Russian rocket launchers are notoriously imprecise, with a dispersion radius of 170 meters, the HIMARS and the M270 allow for precise strikes – assuming, that is, that GPS-guided rockets are used.

"The systems will make a real difference," says Mark Cancian, an analyst with the Washington D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. The problem, though, is that the eight systems promised by the Americans, British and Germans are not enough to defend against the Russian advance along the entire front line. "For just the Donbas, 10 systems are likely sufficient, but it is likely that at least twice that number is necessary for the rest of the front," says Cancian.

Kostenko, the colonel and parliamentarian, also has high hopes for the rocket launchers. Ukraine has lately been pursuing counterattacks in the southern region where he is deployed, with the mid-term goal that of recapturing territory west of the Dnipro River. Russia has captured Kherson, which gives it a bridgehead on the western bank of the river from which it could advance toward Odessa.

Currently, Kostenko says, the situation looks as follows. The Ukrainians are able to break down the initial Russian lines with the help of targeted, drone-controlled artillery. "But then they send up reserves and we aren’t able to secure the territory." The modern multiple rocket launchers with their vast range, he says, would enable the Ukrainian soldiers to also attack Russia’s reserve lines, making it easier to hold onto territory that has been won.

The U.S., meanwhile, made its view of the weapons systems’ potency abundantly clear by making President Zelenskyy promise that Ukraine would not use the rocket launchers to fire into Russian territory. And Washington has decided not to provide so-called ATACMS rocket, which can be fired by the same launchers but have a range of up to 300 kilometers. Russian President Vladimir Putin has seemed unimpressed by the announced deliveries of the rocket launcher systems, saying they would "change nothing of substance."

The question, though, is how rapidly Ukraine will actually be able to deploy the multiple rocket launchers. The four HIMARS systems from the U.S. have already been transported to Europe, but Ukrainian soldiers must still be trained to use them, with three weeks set aside for that training. The German systems, meanwhile, require software adjustments that could result in significant delays, perhaps even until winter.

Training Required

The fact that the war in Ukraine has increasingly become a battle of heavy weaponry has also had consequences for Germany. The government in Berlin has thus far only delivered light weaponry and ammunition, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets, 16 million rounds of ammunition, 50 field medical vehicles and 80 armored offroad vehicles. When it comes to heavy weaponry, however, all Ukraine has received from Berlin is promises.

Other countries have sent far more. Poland, for example, has supplied 230 modernized T-72 battle tanks while the Czech Republic has sent 61 armored personnel carriers. The solidarity shown by Eastern European countries has been immense. In tiny Lithuania, the population collected 5 million euros to buy a Bayraktar combat drone for the Ukrainians, for example. And the Eastern Europeans have been helpful in another area as well: They still possessed significant amounts of Soviet arms, which are simple for the Ukrainians to use. Western systems may be superior, but they require training.

In absolute numbers, though, the U.S. is by far Ukraine’s most important helper. Since the end of January, Washington has sent military aid worth more than 24 billion euros. That includes 6,500 Javelin anti-tank missiles, 20 Soviet Mi-17 helicopters that once belonged to the Afghanistan air force, and Chinese-made Type 56 assault rifles, which were likely destined for delivery from Iran to the Houthi rebels in Yemen but were confiscated enroute.

Germany’s pledge of the multiple rocket launcher systems marks the first time worth mentioning that the country has chosen to deliver heavy weaponry. Previously, Berlin had pledged Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and modern Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled guns. Thus far, though, the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz has only agreed to send seven of the artillery pieces. The fighting front in Ukraine, though, is 1,000 kilometers long, making seven self-propelled guns relatively unmeaningful. Furthermore, not a single one has yet been delivered, with training ongoing. "We pay for every day of delay with the blood of our soldiers," says Arestovych, the presidential adviser. Troops must also be trained to use the Gepard. The weapons system is likely to be more helpful in the long-term, since even the Americans are slowly running out of anti-aircraft missiles.

Berlin has also now promised the IRIS-T anti-aircraft system, which has a much greater range than the Gepard. Furthermore, COBRA anti-artillery radar systems are to be sent. "In combination with the Western howitzers, they are able to locate enemy artillery positions," says military expert Spencer. A single radar unit is able to find up to 40 enemy guns. "That would rob the Russians of the advantage they currently enjoy."

And yet, Spencer says, Berlin could still do much more. And not just heavy weaponry, but also in terms of logistics. Germany is home to both Rheinmetall and Mercedes-Benz, two global leaders in the production of military trucks. "The Ukrainians need huge numbers of trucks to deliver fresh supplies," he says. Armored transportation vehicles would be "a fantastic gift."

In Kyiv, meanwhile, the government no longer has much hope for further weapons deliveries from Germany. "There are countries from which we are awaiting deliveries, and other countries for which we have grown tired of waiting," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently told the Italian daily La Repubblica. "Germany belongs to the second group."