A vicious artillery war is spreading across eastern Ukraine

The first grenade was the worst, mainly because it came as a surprise. But then the soldiers thought it was okay to get up and dust off. Since landed the second, and it was the worst. The third is when they understood they were being hunted and somehow the shelling was now the worst.

Their commander, a confident 31-year-old named Levan, assembled his squad and waited for the bang of the outgoing artillery. He dashed around the corner to the next block and took cover under the trees before sprinting in body armor across a plaza to an abandoned Brutalist-style apartment building. The Russian barrage was relentless, shells chasing Levan and his men almost to the door.

This is the current conflict in Ukraine: relentless artillery warfare perhaps not seen since the days of endless trenches and hollowed-out terrain that marked World War I. Less strategy than slugfest, both sides throw barrage and return fire across a lake. Sawing a front line and hoping to still stand if they pulverize the other side into either submission or at least a crushing retreat.

The fiercest battle is taking place over Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, its sister city across the Seversky Donets River. Russian forces have blazed a trail to near-total control of the former and are preparing to encircle the latter. All three bridges connecting the two cities were hit and unable to carry vehicles, trapping 12,000 people in Severodonetsk’s residential areas. At least 500 civilians and hundreds of militants are bunkered at the city’s Azot chemical plant, authorities say, setting the stage for a repeat of Azovstal, the industrial complex in the embattled city of Mariupol where Moscow’s forces maintained a crushing siege on Ukrainian defenders.

A man points to the huge wreckage of a military vehicle in a meadow

An armored military vehicle after it was destroyed by bombing near its defensive position in Lysychansk, Ukraine on June 13, 2022.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

In many ways, the importance of Severodonetsk is more symbolic than strategic, unlike Lysyhansk, which is on a higher level and would provide its residents with a well-defended position. Instead, it represents the last major bastion of the Ukrainian government’s presence in Luhansk, one of the two eastern provinces targeted by Moscow’s military campaign. But the battle is typical of the struggle unfolding in the mining towns and fertile plains of the country’s eastern Donbass region: the sheer size of Russia’s arsenal favors outlasting the Ukrainians, who have hitherto clung to territory until it is probably too late to escape captivity.

Street fighting breaks out, but there are few close skirmishes between opposing troops near the towns. Most of the casualties are the result of barrages: In the last three months of the war, 80 to 90 percent were due to artillery, the rest to bullets, said Oleg Vrolov, a physical training instructor who became an army ambulance driver and joined a few days, after the Russians invaded his hometown of Cherson in February.

He’s seen the effects of the heavy shelling on the soldiers he’s evacuating near the front line: shrapnel cutting their legs so badly they had no choice but to amputate. Shrapnel in tiny pieces piercing through a man’s body. Shrapnel cracks bones.

“It’s my job. I wanted an active place,” he said. However, he acknowledged that his response belied the fear he felt as he attempted to evacuate soldiers from locations near the “zero line.”

“The fights were so crazy my legs were shaking,” he said. “I want to stay alive, that’s it, but I have to go to these places.”

During his three-month tenure, the battle lines have shifted back and forth, but it was still two steps forward and one step back in favor of the Russians. Now they were raining Grad fusillalles and 152-millimeter barrages on a checkpoint less than three miles from the supposedly safe position where Wrolow was dropping casualties for emergency care.

A visit to this checkpoint — a handful of police and soldiers who challenged passing motorists before scampering underground to artillery barrages — showed the precarious position of Ukrainians.

“Every day. Twice a day, four times a day. Then also at night,” said Yevhen, one of the police officers there, adding that the barrage could last one to two hours, sometimes longer.

Sitting next to him in the bunker was Serhei, a 40-year-old policeman: “It has gotten worse in the last week. It’s like Disneyland here,” he joked with a weary smile on his face.

Two people in work clothes on a tank on a road, along a dense line of green trees

A Ukrainian tank heads for the city of Lysychansk on June 10, 2022.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Some of the heaviest fighting took place further down the P66 highway, where Ukrainian forces continue to defend the south-eastern flank of Lysychansk at a terrible cost.

“The bodies, the smell of rotting flesh, it’s everywhere. There are shells and gunfire from all sides, and the Russians are advancing a little bit more every day,” said Ahmad Akhmedov, a Dagestani commander stationed with Ukrainian troops near the village of Toshkivka, about 12 miles southeast of Lysyhansk is. He looked exhausted, his face aged from fatigue and perhaps from losing too many comrades – up to 30 a day, he said.

Ukrainian officials estimate that between 100 and 200 soldiers are killed every day. That could be up to 6,000 a month, with many times that number of wounded. Analysts estimate that Russia has lost 10,000 soldiers since the war began.

Ukrainians who survive the ossuary have withered, their morale drained from the constant explosions. Reinforcements don’t arrive often enough and often appear untrained anyway.

“Our soldiers fight all the time, but they are tired. They haven’t left the trenches for months,” Akhmedov said.

Still, many of the fighters and officials interviewed in and around Lysychansk balked at the idea of ​​giving up territory. They indicated that Western nations are reluctant to hand over arms despite pledges, although they urge Kyiv to consider a cession of territory in order to bring about a ceasefire.

The men here didn’t care too much about the larger politics at play, but they unanimously called for additional weaponry, particularly long-range multiple-launch missile systems (or MLRS) and Western artillery systems that could knock out targets 300 miles a way

“We don’t need 4 HIMARS. We need a thousand,” Serhei said, referring to the high-mobility artillery-missile systems that the US recently provided to Ukrainian troops.

Washington this week pledged an additional $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine, including additional rounds for the HIMARS. But the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, warned that the HIMARS were not a “silver bullet.”

“No weapon system – a single weapon system ever makes the difference,” he said at a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday. Still, he commended the Ukrainians for inflicting a 20-30 percent loss on the Russian armored force. Open-source experts say Russia lost about 1,000 tanks.

Milley resisted the notion of an inevitable Russian takeover of Donbass, citing Severodonetsk as a place where Ukrainians are fighting the Russians “street by street, house by house, and it’s not a done deal”.

“There is no inevitability in war,” he said.

But he conceded that the “numbers clearly favor the Russians… They outnumber artillery, they have superior weaponry, and they have better range.”

Still, it seemed clear throughout Lysychansk that the Ukrainians were suffering heavy casualties. Scattered around the neighborhood or nestled among the hiking trails are the burned-out carcasses of armored vehicles, anti-tank guns and at least one pontoon bypass truck, all rendered inoperative by Russian artillery fire, local residents said. Buildings in which Ukrainian troops were bunkered were punctured by shrapnel from Grad rockets, whose fuselage and fins were still sticking out of the asphalt.

On the screen of a drone flown by a Ukrainian soldier tasked with giving target coordinates over Severodonetsk, the effect of the artillery duel appeared like a cancerous growth that pixelated everything in its path Shattered version of what it was. Up close everything looks burnt and ground into a palette of black, dark gray and grey. The only touches of color come from the occasional children’s toy or fluorescent police vest that still lies untouched among the ruins.

A person seen from behind walks through a mountain of brown debris

Residents collect their belongings after a shelling hit their homes along a road leading to Lysychansk in Ukraine June 13, 2022.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

This cancer is slowly spreading in the Donetsk province as the scars of the war grow. The main road from Lysyhansk to Bakhmut, a town in Donetsk province about 30 miles southwest, was already a Russian free-fire zone a month ago, forcing local residents and supply convoys to take a backcountry route into the area.

But even there the signs of the fierce battle going on all around are beginning to show. Roads are increasingly cratered. A short drive from Bakhmut on Tuesday was the still-smoking rubble of three mud-and-brick houses, all felled by the explosive force of a single blow. The next day, a few miles earlier, heavily armored Kozak vehicles, Kamaz military trucks, ambulances and Soviet-era junk drove past the hull of a Ukrainian infantry fighting vehicle: sometime overnight it exploded, spilling oil and chunks of metal and shredded belongings across the dual carriageway Street.

On one occasion, what appeared to be a Ukrainian Mi-17 helicopter flew low and hugged a row of poplars to avoid detection. a trick of perspective made it look like a fat bee flying past a green field of wheat.

Even as the battle to encircle Severodonetsk raged on, it seemed Lysychansk was on borrowed time. Soldiers tagged cars going down the P66 motorway and warned motorists of heavy shelling near the main checkpoint outside of town.

“If the shelling stops, you have three minutes before it starts again,” one of them said. Behind him was a percussive blast of a battle some 10 miles in the woods south of town, punctuated by sustained salvos of machine guns from helicopter gunships.

“Now you can go,” said another. The driver didn’t hesitate, the engine revving up and down as the van sped down the highway. He stared in silence, waiting for the sound that meant his luck had run out.

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-06-17/endless-shelling-and-dead-soldiers-a-vicious-artillery-war-spreads-in-ukraine A vicious artillery war is spreading across eastern Ukraine

Alley Einstein

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