Two Russian jets screamed up to the Ukrainian lines near the town of Vuhledar on Thursday, dropped their explosives and banked sharply, hurtling back from where they came. They left in their wake two large black plumes rising from the detonations.
After a brief lull, Russian forces have of late intensified their assaults on positions around Vuhledar, a coal mining town and strategic crossroads in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has been the scene of epic tank battles. Russians have made several attempts to seize the city, only to falter in the face of Ukrainian resistance.
“I don’t know where the Russians are getting so much artillery,” said a 43-year-old private named Pavlo who operates a heavy machine gun atop an American-made MaxxPro armored fighting vehicle in this sector. “And there are also tanks, helicopters and jets. The guys can’t get in and out of their positions, the firing is so heavy.”
As temperatures rise and the viscous mud begins to dry and harden into terrain ideal for heavy armored vehicles, both the Ukrainians and Russians are gearing up for the summer fighting season. Moscow’s apparent attempt to seize the initiative with a late-winter offensive yielded little ground, but as the incessant pounding of artillery and rocket fire around Vuhledar on Thursday attests, the Russians still have a lot of fight left.
Much focus is on an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, which could begin at any time, bolstered by a flood of advanced arms from the United States and its allies. But Ukrainian troops know that as much as they need the new weaponry, it is no guarantee of success. The Kremlin’s forces still have a big numerical advantage in heavy weapons, including aircraft and armored vehicles, the Russians have built defensive positions, and the Ukrainians are still learning how to use some of their new gear.
Positioned through a warren of trench works in the farm fields around Vuhledar, Ukraine’s forces are not battling against the newly mobilized troops and former prison inmates Russia has sent into combat with minimal training on other sectors of the front lines. Instead, they are fighting some of Russia’s best-trained forces, including naval infantry troops from Russia’s Far East, and casualties on both sides have been heavy.
“The fighters are charged up to go forward regardless of the fact that there are minuses,” said a Ukrainian company commander who uses the call sign Dolphin. “We’re losing in numbers and losing perhaps in a number of areas because of our weaponry. I’m not going to say that everything is going well, is going great.”
“But there is one but,” he said. “There are more of them, but we’re stronger.”
Despite his forces’ shortcomings, Dolphin said, they were recently able to retake a position earlier lost to the Russian military, a small victory that he said nevertheless came at a cost.
“We lost our best people — those who died and those who were taken out of the fight because of injuries,” he said.
Ukraine’s leaders hope that the infusion of Western weaponry, particularly tanks and armored fighting vehicles, will help even the scales. The forces near Vuhledar are already benefiting from a fleet of the MaxxPros, part of a class of mine-resistant vehicles known as MRAPs.
Pavlo, who wears a silver skull mask into battle, said that he and his team have been hit several times with ordnance from grenade launchers while driving their MaxxPro at the front and have come out unscathed. The vehicle also once took a tank round to one of its wheels and was able to hobble away.
It comes with air conditioning and a pretty decent sound system. On the team’s playlist Thursday was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.”
Speaking to a reporter after firing off a few hundred rounds from the vehicle’s 12.7-millimeter gun at a military training range not far from the fighting in Vuhledar, Pavlo said Ukraine’s forces needed more of this kind of heavy equipment if they were going to make further progress.
“The Russians have tanks, they have BMPs and BTRs,” he said, referring to Russian-made armored fighting vehicles. “We can’t go up against them with rifles. We need heavy equipment on the ground and support in the air.”
But nearby Ukrainian troops were learning that making full use of new weapons takes time. A young sergeant who goes by the name Michael was showing soldiers how to use an American-made Mk-19 grenade launcher — and it was not going well.
The weapon is more accurate and versatile than its Soviet-era analogues, Michael said. But there was one problem: Ukrainian soldiers were having trouble figuring out how to use it.
“At the time it entered into service with the Ukrainian armed forces, there were no instructors who could explain how to work it,” he said. “The manuals were only in English and in the Ukrainian military few speak English.”
It is up to Michael, who is 23, but has five years’ experience in the military operating grenade launchers, to train them. He is the only one in his company who knows how to use it, he said.