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US artillery enters the fight in Ukraine

POKROVSK, Ukraine – Camouflaged in a pile of cut branches from nearby trees, the weapon that Ukraine hopes will make a crucial difference in its war with Russia is virtually invisible from more than a few meters away.

Soon a single shell shot out with a boom and a howling metallic screech as it sailed towards the Russian positions.

This is the American-made M777 howitzer. It shoots further, moves faster and hides easier, and that’s what the Ukrainian army was waiting for.

Three months into the war in Ukraine, the first US heavy artillery – the deadliest weapons the West has provided so far – is now deployed in combat in eastern Ukraine. Their arrival bolstered Ukraine’s hopes of achieving artillery superiority in at least some frontline areas, a key step towards military victories in a war now fought primarily on a flat, open steppe at long range. .

American howitzers are large steel and titanium machines covered in hydraulic pipes and perched on four struts that fold up and down. They have already fired hundreds of rounds since arriving around May 8, destroying armored vehicles and killing Russian soldiers, according to Ukrainian commanders.

“This weapon brings us closer to victory,” Colonel Roman Kachur, commander of the 55th Artillery Brigade, whose unit was the first unit to deploy the weapon, said in an interview. Mixing confidence with an implied plea for more weapons, he added: “With every modern weapon, every precise weapon, we come one step closer to victory.”

The United States said a few weeks ago that it would supply the howitzers, but their combat use has so far been mostly hinted at in online videos posted, mostly anonymously, by soldiers. On Sunday, the military provided The New York Times with a tour of a gun line in eastern Ukraine, the first independent confirmation by international media that the weapons are being used.

Military analysts say the full effect won’t be felt for at least two weeks, as Ukraine has yet to train enough soldiers to fire the 90 such howitzers promised by the US and others allies. Only a dozen guns are now at the front, and they are no guarantee of victory, as the Russians continue to engage in heavy fighting in the eastern region of Donbass.

Arming Ukraine with more powerful weapons is a politically sensitive issue. The United States, France, Slovakia and other Western countries rushed in heavy artillery and support systems – such as drones, counter-battery radars and armored vehicles to tow guns – even as Russia accuses the West of waging a proxy war in Ukraine, and threatens unspecified consequences if arms shipments continue.

Disagreements over how aggressively to confront Russia have arisen within the Western coalition. France, Italy and Germany have suggested Ukraine use the leverage of more powerful weapons to push for a ceasefire that could lead to a negotiated withdrawal of Russian forces .

Ukrainian officials pushed back. They insist that the momentum is on their side and that talks should only come after battlefield victories and the recapture of territory – a once almost inconceivable idea that has become more tenable after the Ukrainian army inflicted multiple setbacks on Russia even before the arrival of Western heavy weapons.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview on Ukrainian television over the weekend, said a diplomatic solution would only come after additional military victories for Ukraine, as well as an influx of weapons. The Ukrainian military has pushed back Russian troops from kyiv and positions near the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, but is currently under intense pressure in a more limited battle for control of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine.

“It’s like an automobile, not a gasoline or electric car, but a hybrid car,” he said of the end of the war with a mixture of military gains and talks. “And that’s how war is: complicated.”

“Victory will be bloody,” Mr. Zelensky said.

Either way, the diplomatic talks broke down about a week ago, the two sides said, sending the outcome back to the battlefields of eastern Ukraine.

The new Western long-range artillery is the most powerful and destructive of the many types currently supplied by NATO countries.

In the open eastern plains, a long drive over rutted roads and dirt tracks ends with jeeps swerving rapidly into a row of trees.

Secrecy is paramount in the cat-and-mouse artillery duels that have defined the war in recent weeks. Soldiers waste no time stacking freshly cut branches on vehicles, as camouflage against enemy drones.

In artillery duels, soldiers value not only range, but also the ability to hide and quickly move guns and support vehicles.

Since their deployment two weeks ago, the dozen howitzers operating in two artillery batteries had fired 1,876 rounds on Sunday, according to Ukrainian officers.

With a mixture of airbursts, anti-personnel fragmentation shells and other types of projectiles, Ukrainian gunners destroyed at least three Russian armored vehicles and, according to Colonel Kachur’s estimate, killed at least several dozen soldiers Russians.

On the line of fire in the trees, empty ammunition boxes and spent cartridges were strewn amidst the foxholes. Kalashnikov rifles were leaning against tree trunks.

The officers did not say what they were aiming for.

Although he and his soldiers would most likely be the first to sense a Russian response, Colonel Kachur shrugged off that concern.

“If Russia was able to escalate, it would have already done so,” he said. The Russian invasion force is approaching the limits of its offensive capability, he said. “Arms deliveries can in no way increase Russian aggression, quite the contrary.”

nytimes Eur

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