DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine – Vitaly, 28, a Ukrainian agronomist turned gunner officer, was mobilized to his country’s war against Russia over a year ago to an artillery battery in Lviv. He was in the middle of his agriculture studies in Kyiv when the war started.
“Eight months later I was the 2nd in command of an artillery battery. Now I’m the commander,” he said, standing in front of one of the three 2S22 Bohdana self-propelled howitzers, concealed in a wooded area somewhere near the town of Druzhivka, in the central Donbas region in Ukraine.
It is a blazing summer’s day and it is the height of the fighting season. Vitaly looks the way you’d imagine a Ukrainian agronomist turned gunner officer should look, tall, blond, strapping, and full of good humor. He is from the Vinnytsia area, and his battery is part of the 57th Separate Motorized Infantry Brigade, one of the more active of Ukrainian army divisions over the last 15 months of war in Ukraine. His unit is located 22 km. behind the main lines of the brigade.
Ukrainian-made weaponry doing the military proud
The Bohdanas, as the name would suggest, are Ukrainian-made, and the Ukrainian army is very proud of them. First deployed just over a year ago, they have a range of 42 km., capacities far beyond that of regular artillery. “We use them to destroy warehouses of the enemy, and logistics centers too,” Vitaly said, “and of course for counter-battery fire – artillery against their artillery.”
The gunners of Vitaly’s battery seem to be doing well, bored but quick and efficient as they receive the order from brigade HQ to prepare the Bohdana for firing. The cannon make is as imposing as 155 mm. NATO standard howitzers are supposed to be.
More broadly, though, the conversations between the soldiers of the counteroffensive are a little less encouraging, with whispers of heavy losses. The Russians had months and months to dig in, and appear not to have wasted their time.
The Russian army’s positions are fearsome, 30 km. deep in some places, according to reports. Neither side has released casualty figures but one has the impression that even the limited incursions so far attempted are reaping a considerable toll from the young, mobilized civilians that make up the armies of President Volodymyr Zelensky and his chief of staff, General Valery Zaluzhny.
“Here, we have taken some villages,” one of Vitaly’s gunners told The Jerusalem Post. “But further south, in Zaporizhia, the Russians had mined large parts of the countryside, so the Ukrainian army had a problem.”
That problem is the mines. The Russians have a wide range available to them, from the antipersonnel Claymore and “butterfly” mines to heavier TM-62s, for use against vehicles, all designed to slow or stop an advancing force, or to funnel it into prepared killing grounds.
The counteroffensive has yet to begin
Ukrainians here will tell you that the decisive phase of the counteroffensive has yet to begin. Advances are undoubtedly happening. There is 158.4 sq.km. that have been recaptured overall since the start of the counteroffensive at the beginning of June, according to Ukrainian claims. But the Russians, too, have sought to regain the initiative, currently counterattacking near Lyman, about 60 km. north of Druzhkivka.
The fight looks set to carry on, the initiative seesawing between the sides. It’s worth remembering that for the Ukrainians, even to be contesting the Donbas with the Russians represents a considerable achievement. Vladimir Putin’s original war aims were the capture of Kyiv and the extinguishing of the Ukrainian state.
That all seems long ago. The spirit and courage of the Ukrainians was the factor Putin had not thought to include in his calculations. This element very much remains, unexhausted, whatever the weeks ahead bring. “The higher-ups know better,” Vitaly said, being a agriculture student turned howitzer battery commander, “but if you want my opinion, I’d say we haven’t even started properly yet.”