From our special envoy to Ukraine – A year after its failed full-scale invasion, Moscow gathered 320,000 troops in the eastern Donbass region to overwhelm Ukrainian defences. Pending the deployment of new Western weapons, the kyiv forces are struggling to hold their lines with their obsolete equipment. France 24 report.
To the sound of artillery fire, a Ukrainian unit is digging new trenches with the help of construction machines a few kilometers from the eastern town of Bakhmout. Moscow’s forces gradually gained ground there through frontal, near-suicidal, World War I-style attacks, supported by well-equipped Wagner mercenaries. As the Russian stranglehold tightens on Bakhmout, now close to encirclement, Ukrainian forces add new defensive lines to fall back on.
“This line is fortified in case Bakhmout falls,” soldier Igor told France 24 from the top of a hill. Ukraine’s objective: to ensure that the fall of this city does not turn into a breakthrough for Russian forces.
“We are ready to pay the price to win,” says Igor, alluding to the large number of fallen Ukrainian soldiers, “but victory is now in the hands of our allies who must provide us with better weapons.”
We heard this mantra from almost all the soldiers during our visits to several sensitive areas of the front line, in the Donbass. And the demand for additional Western weapons is growing as Russia advances.
After having bet for a time on the war of attrition by sending poorly trained convicts to the front, as in Bakhmout, Russia seems to have changed its strategy. In areas such as Kreminna or Vuhledar, Ukraine now faces assaults from professional mechanized units.
With Western armor not expected to arrive until late spring or summer, kyiv’s forces have no choice but to defend themselves with their Soviet-era gear.
Several aging T-64, T-72 and T-80 tanks are scattered in a pine forest about twenty kilometers from the Russian lines. On their shielding, the number attached to the letter “T” gives an approximate idea of the date of entry into service of the first models. The crew members we met weren’t even born then.
“Not enough armor to push the Russians back”
Once the soldiers receive the coordinates of their target, the tanks close in, in pairs, to fire on the enemy. They then move away from the front line, to return to their initial position or move towards another location.
“Right now, it’s very difficult because the enemy is pushing and we don’t have enough armored vehicles to push them back,” a soldier from the 25th Ukrainian tank brigade told France 24. called ‘Volunteer’.
“Our most pressing problem is the shortage of ammunition,” added a senior officer, also named Igor. “In practice this means we have to take more risks because we have to get closer to the enemy to make sure we don’t waste any shells.”
The tank company commander insists that delivering Western armor would make a big difference on the battlefield.
To prove his point, he invites us to get into his T-80. Seconds after slipping into the cramped firing position, we realize how dependent the crew is on technology for something as basic as visibility.
The T-80’s optics system is woefully outdated, with different scopes for daytime targeting and thermal imaging, not allowing easy switching between the two. On modern Western tanks, the gunner has access to both imagery on the same screen. A crucial point, because thermal imaging is very useful, including in broad daylight, to distinguish targets, especially in the forest and in the city.
“And the shells are stored right below where you are sitting,” Igor points out, with a small smile. In these tanks, a hit or fire can cause an explosion under the seat, throwing the tank turret several meters. This phenomenon, sometimes called “flying turret”, is the ultimate nightmare of crews operating Soviet tanks.
Western tanks have the ability to engage in combat from further away and can cooperate more easily on the battlefield with other infantry and artillery units, confirms Alexandre Vautravers, editor-in-chief of the Swiss Military Review and former deputy commander of an armored brigade.
“Tanks in Ukraine today are used as mobile artillery. There have been very, very few tanks destroyed by other tanks in this conflict. Western tanks and armored vehicles can give Ukrainian forces an advantage by allowing them to move and shoot at the same time. But that would require two or three weeks of intensive training,” explains the military expert.
Even so, Western tanks are unlikely to be the silver bullet that will push Russian forces out of Igor’s frontline section. The company commander considers anti-tank mines to be one of the greatest threats in this area. A danger against which modern armored vehicles are not immune.
“Even with Western tanks, it would be difficult to break through the Russian lines in the Donbass, because the front has been fortified for almost ten years”, analyzes Alexandre Vautravers. Besides the concentration of artillery and anti-tank missiles, the defensive lines in this area include deep ditches, concrete obstacles and minefields.
Operations at five meters above the ground
Mikhail, for his part, does not have to worry about minefields. This 39-year-old pilot from the 12th military aviation brigade flies an MI-24 “Hind” attack helicopter. Five models of his unit, which also includes MI-8 transport helicopters, are stationed on an open field on the eastern front. Maintenance workers are busy lubricating the holes in the rocket pods, while others check the alignment of the helicopter pallets. They must be ready to take off in an instant if their commanders send them the coordinates of a target.
“Everyone has a role to play in the fight against the Russians. When the infantry cannot move, they call in the helicopters (…) Our sorties can last up to an hour and we destroy our targets in 90 % of cases – but it’s very dangerous,” Mikhail told France 24.
The Donbass front is heavily fortified with air defenses and manpads (portable surface-to-air missiles). The unit’s pilots explain that the higher they fly, the more likely they are to be spotted by enemy surface-to-air missiles.
“The Hind’s spec manual says we shouldn’t fly lower than 20 meters. But we can be detected by portable radar if we climb higher than 10 meters. That’s why I usually only fly at five meters from the ground,” says Mikhail.
Like other Ukrainian soldiers, the pilots are hopeful that better Western weapons will help offset Russia’s numerical superiority. But they are also fully aware that the promised armored vehicles will not arrive in sufficient numbers on the Ukrainian battlefield for several months. It will then be too late to help repel Russia’s winter offensive.
In the meantime, Ukrainian forces are turning to what they call “trophies” – Russian armored vehicles, seized after being abandoned by their crews. At a secret location outside Kharkiv, we visited a low-key military workshop where mechanics are working around the clock to get them back to working order.
A BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicle, the tracks of which are broken, rusts in a corner. It serves as a reserve of spare parts; mechanics tell us he’s already helped breathe new life into two similar models. Several Russian tanks are piled up in a small courtyard, the letter “Z” still visible on their armor.
Since the start of the February 24, 2022 invasion, Russia has lost 500 tanks to Ukraine, ironically becoming the number one international supplier of armor to its enemy. But for the Ukrainian soldiers, there is no doubt that only the future arsenal of weapons supplied by the West will make it possible to wrest the occupied territories from the forces of Moscow.
Source: France 24