Four minutes. That’s how long they have to aim the rocket launcher tubes, unload the thunderous “hail” inside, bring the piece back to rest, launch without looking back, and take cover as quickly as possible, so that the Russian counter-batteries do not reach them when they return fire. Everything happens in less than four minutes: in the open field, in view of any enemy drone that flies over the area and no dugouts in which to shelter if something goes wrong.
The tension of the moment – in which there is not even time to think about the consequences of that “if something goes wrong” – contrasts with the calm that enveloped everything a few minutes before, in the position where the 80th Airborne Brigade of the Army of Ukraine awaited orders just 5 kilometers from the Russian lines.
The commander of the artillery piece, Konstantin, was chatting animatedly with three of his boys, next to the BM-21 “Grad” for which they had dug their own trench. Meanwhile, two other soldiers took shelter from the July heat underground, looking at the mobile carefreeas if there was no war to be waged on the surface.
“Why did you enlist?” I ask the youngest. “I am 22 years old, I enlisted three years ago. Back then I talked a lot with soldiers about what was going on… I guess I enlisted to see to what extent what they said was true and to protect my country.”
His partner, Vasyl, has it clearer. “I am 28 years old, and I served in the Army between 2016 and 2019. When the invasion began I did not doubt it for a moment: that same day I re-enlisted”. The interview is interrupted when another soldier enters the underground trench to look for Zenova and Vasyl: there is a radio call, they have to launch an attack against the Russian positions.
Going outside, the scene has completely changed. No one smokes cigarettes or laughs carelessly anymore. The commander of the artillery piece talks with the zone commander, and both they type on their tablets without blinking: they are fixing the coordinates of the target that they have been ordered to shoot down.
At the same time, the rest of the unit begins to prepare the rocket launcher – attached to a truck – to launch as soon as they are given the order. Each one knows what their mission is, and it shows that they are well coordinated.
They’ve gone from zero to a hundred in no time: reaction time is key in a mobile artillery position like this, on which the lives of dozens of infantry soldiers probably depend, who need your support as soon as possible to continue advancing or to start a withdrawal.
War cannot be waged without casualties
“Of course the work is dangerous, but there are worse positions“, assures Yaroslav, the area commander of the 80th Airborne Brigade. Under Yaroslav’s command there are several more artillery positions, strategically spread out on the southern flank of Bakhmut. And the radio does not let up.
“Now we think and we work in a more professional waywe have changed, the scenario has also changed, and we have to adapt to the situation”, he reflects when I ask him if the war is now more dangerous than before.
“You have to understand that fear also changes over time, now we are moved by the impulse to move forward; but when one of your men gets hurt it’s still tough emotionally. It doesn’t make me happy to lose anyone, but unfortunately the war cannot be waged without casualties”, he sentenced, as he started off.
There are mornings when they go out to shoot up to five and six times. They do not reveal how many projectiles they can launch against the enemy each day – it is classified information – but the truth is that the activity on the southern flank of Bakhmut is very intense these days. “Right now we are repelling a russian offensive“, Add.
They are not the only ones participating in military operations in the area. For every column of smoke that we see on the horizon –caused by Russian projectiles–, it is heard how the Ukrainians return fire. And next to the artillery positions, the infantry and the stormtroopers are also doing their job.
more soviet weaponry
Like the vast majority of the weapons arsenal that both Russia and Ukraine are deploying in this war, the BM-21 Grad is a weapon of Soviet design. A multiple rocket launcher, with high mobility and versatility. It was created in 1964, but it is still manufactured today due to its good performance.
The 36 launch tubes that it has, stuck side by side in a multi-layered rectangular structure, are mounted on a robust truck that reaches 75 kilometers per hour.
The six men who drive the rocket launcher also travel in the truck itself. And although his appearance is somewhat rough, his agility when dodging enemy counter-batteries gives it one of its strengths.
The BM-21 Grad, also called “hail,” fires 122-millimeter ammunition. They have a 40 kilometer range, and at the beginning of the full-scale invasion they became very famous because the Russian troops were pounding the Kharkiv province with them – for several months. Until the Ukrainian Army pushed them back, and they no longer had enough range.
But on the Bakhmut front, the distances are much shorter. And the performance of these mobile artillery pieces is being highly appreciated.
Mobile positions and quick response
The Ukrainian counteroffensive started –almost a month and a half ago– with significant losses of weapons and many personal casualties. Although it is normal to suffer more casualties when attacking than when defending, the wear and tear of the first weeks was not acceptable for the Ukrainian Army, which has changed its strategy.
Now, the information coming from the most active fronts –such as Zaporizhia– explain that after seeing what heavily mined are the Russian defensive lines, they are approaching them in another less exposed way. So progress is slower.
However, and also according to military sources that are in an active phase in Zaporizhia, already there are points where the Ukrainians have managed to break through and the Russians have started to flee. “They only fight in those positions where they have arsenals of anti-tank missiles, in the rest they flee,” says one of the officers who is participating in the counteroffensive.
On the Bakhmut front the goal is not so much to liberate occupied towns as to push the Kremlin troops to lose the territory they had conquered meter by meter since the siege of northern Donetsk began. And in view of the situation maps –which are updated every day with the advances of both armies–, Ukrainians have been getting good results for several weeks.
It will not be as sudden a counteroffensive as the one Zelensky planned in complete secrecy last fall, managing to liberate Kharkov Oblast in barely two months. This time the military campaign is likely to last well into winter. And its progress will depend on the weapons that kyiv’s allied countries continue to send. If the F-16s finally arrive, everything could be turned upside down.
Meanwhile, from the fighting positions a few kilometers from the Russian lines – such as that of the 80th Airborne Brigade – they will continue to roar their Grad to push the Kremlin troops as close as possible to the starting square.
I say goodbye to them at a dusty crossroads, while we listen to the impact of the Russian artillery falling very close to where we are. They return to their position, to wait for the next radio call. And they smile and joke again, until the next four minutes in which they will play everything again.