January 30, 2023

How Ukraine is innovating Soviet-era weapons for a 21st century battleground

4 min read

Bakhmut, Ukraine

In a basement in the east UkraineYoung men sit at a long table strewn with laptops, their eyes glued to a television screen an arm’s length away.

They see a dark figure on a dark winter hilltop, looking panicked, then run across the frame. It’s a live video feed from a small Ukrainian drone several miles away – a spotter for artillery teams trying to hit Russian troops in their trenches.

Smoke billows from nearby Ukrainian salvos.

All along the eastern front, in basement command centers hidden behind unmarked metal doors, bookish Ukrainian soldiers fire live artillery. Russian advance.

It is a real-life testing ground for modern warfare of the 21st century. The men use cheap, commercially available drones and consumer chat programs to identify and communicate with targets for weapons that are, in many cases, decades old.

Their fiercest battle is taking place for the city of Bakhmut, which has been besieged by Russian forces for months.

The horror of this war is evident from the first moments of approaching the city, where black smoke rises from apartment blocks.

As a CNN team entered the heavily trafficked main street, a Russian artillery shell landed on a building just a few dozen yards away. Moments later, another shell hit the building again, prompting our military escort to encourage the team to leave. Much of this battle is fought under the constant threat of Russian artillery.

Ukrainian soldiers watch a real-time feed from drones as they direct artillery strikes at Russian positions.

Petro, the commander of the National Guard who runs the unit, says the Kremlin has concentrated large numbers of forces for the attack on Bakhmut and Ukrainian troops are struggling.

“It feels like a constant, non-stop attack,” he says. “The only window of comfort is when they run out of people and wait for reinforcements.”

Like others in the Ukrainian military, Petro uses only his first name to protect his identity.

He describes a war in which Russia sends in wave after wave of troops, apparently not caring if they are crushed.

“Their tactic is to pass on the poor people we need to eliminate,” Petro explains. “They can’t attack Bakhmut directly, so they go around it. We have to move from the urban areas to the fields where we are heavily bombarded by artillery.

Petro’s explanation echoed that of Serhiy Hayday, the Ukrainian head of the neighboring Luhansk region, who said last month that near Bakhmut, Russians “die in large numbers – mobilized people just move forward to mark our positions.”

Some Russian soldiers Significant casualties have been reported.Although the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed earlier this month that losses “did not exceed 1% of combat strength and 7% of casualties.”

Ukrainian forces fired artillery at Russian positions on the front line near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

Every corner of the subterranean command center is occupied – whiteboards of casualties, sleeping cots, boxes of drones waiting to be sorted.

“The roads are muddy,” Petro says. “We can’t evacuate the wounded and deliver ammunition fast enough.”

Ukrainian commanders also complain of a lack of communication between units, and that they lack enough low-ranking officers to keep troops motivated and engaged in combat after months of intense fighting.

Further on, in the tree line bordering the fields, is the Ukrainian artillery at the other end of the phone with the basement.

Pavlo, a Ukrainian commander, in his basement.
Tuman, commander of a Ukrainian artillery battalion, on the front lines.

Toman, the battery commander, receives coordinates on a mobile phone in one hand, and writes them down in a notebook he holds in the other.

He yells at them and a soldier drives them back before peering into a scope to aim at a Soviet-era artillery piece that they now load with Polish-made shells. With the pull of a cord, autumn leaves shake from the nearly frozen ground, and a cannonball whistles toward the horizon.

“Our general staff tries to deliver as many rounds as possible,” Tuman says in the relative safety of a nearby trench. “But we think we’re below our potential. But you get what you get.”

It claims that Russia’s artillery accuracy has deteriorated over the year, as Ukrainian forces have undermined their enemy’s ability to conduct aerial reconnaissance.

“Their accuracy went down,” he says. “But their rounds are flying at us all the time.”

In another basement command center further south in the Donetsk region, another set of soldiers stares at their set of screens.

Their commander, Paolo, tells us that he counts daily casualties in the dozens.

“Vehicles and ammunition are scalable,” he says. “We try not to count them, and use as much as possible to stop the enemy from advancing. The only thing we cannot restore is human life.

He is serious about this price.

He says, ‚ÄúThere is no war without casualties. “If we resist, and don’t want the Russians to take over our territory, then we need to fight. If we fight, we take casualties. These casualties are justified and inevitable.”

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