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June 10, 2022updated 16 Jun 2022 8:10am

Artillery wars in the Ukrainian Donbas

The Russian military has re-focused its strategic objectives and consolidated its forces within Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

By GlobalData

Over 100 days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the nature of the conflict has shifted from armored assaults on entrenched positions and urban population centers to a protracted artillery war which heavily favors the Russian playbook.

Following several initial setbacks at the outset of their invasion, the Russian military has re-focused its strategic objectives and consolidated its forces within Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Whereas the previous four-pronged invasion of Ukraine often saw disorganized and poorly equipped Russian ground forces get outmaneuvered and routed by highly mobile and well-equipped Ukrainian troops along multiple disconnected fronts, both factions have now refocused their efforts along the well-established frontline in eastern Ukraine.

Indeed, armed fighting has been occurring in the region since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, which has allowed both Russian and Ukrainian forces to construct entrenched positions and reinforce logistical supply lines over the course of eight years. As such, both sides have had to alter their tactics accordingly, as the increased engagement distances over expansive terrain coupled with significant losses of both personnel and materiel has driven Russian forces to rely more heavily on their long-range precision fires capabilities to unseat the stoic Ukrainian resistance.

Furthermore, though the Russian military’s previous failed offensives were severely hampered by their inability to effectively rotate in supplies and reinforcements deep within Ukrainian territory, the Donbas region’s geographical proximity to Russia has greatly facilitated their ability to sustain logistical operations. Consequently, Russian military commanders are increasingly able to press their numerical and technological advantage, utilizing smaller ground units and expendable unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to probe Ukrainian defenses before pulling those units back and decimating defensive positions with withering artillery and rocket fire.

This strategy has proven to be relatively effective, as Russian forces have made incremental territorial gains in recent weeks whilst Ukrainian forces have found themselves outnumbered and outgunned by Russia’s extensive artillery capabilities.

The Russian armed forces are currently operating a wide range of indirect fire platforms in Ukraine, including towed artillery such as the Soviet-era 122mm D-30 or 152mm Msta-B howitzers, self-propelled artillery like the 122mm 2S1 Gvozdika or 152mm 2s33 Msta-SM2 and Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) like the 122mm BM-21 Grad or the 220mm TOS-1A, the latter of which is capable of firing thermobaric missiles.

These systems excel at targeting entrenched positions and materiel in open terrain, and though many of the ageing Soviet-era systems are far less accurate than modern precision guided artillery, the Russian high command’s lack of concern regarding collateral damage to the civilian population or infrastructure has mitigated this issue as Russian batteries continue to shell Ukrainian-held territory indiscriminately until the defending forces are either eliminated or forced to retreat.

Furthermore, unlike the Russian military the Ukrainian armed forces did not operate any artillery systems which could compete with Russian hardware in terms of effective range and lethality, positioning them at a severe strategic disadvantage in the artillery-centric engagements which have come to typify combat in the Donbas region. Recent statistical estimates from the Ukrainian authorities place their forces at a forty-to-one numerical disadvantage in terms of personnel, and an even more troubling twenty-to-one disadvantage in terms of available artillery systems.

Ukrainian authorities and military officials have highlighted this dichotomy since the outset of the war, with the issue becoming so poignant that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has issued numerous public appeals to Western allies requesting they provide Ukrainian forces with heavy artillery, ammunition and training to readjust the current power differential. These requests have been received with varying levels of enthusiasm amongst Ukraine’s military benefactors, with US President Joe Biden recently publishing an opinion piece highlighting western concerns that providing systems which could be used to strike Russian sovereign territory could further antagonize Russian authorities and subsequently escalate the conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Nevertheless, Russian military successes over the last two weeks have driven home the precariousness of Ukraine’s potential success, resulting in a growing number of states providing key systems to address this capability gap. According to the Ukrainian Minister of Defence Oleksii Reznikov, there are currently 150 foreign supplied 155mm artillery systems operating in Ukraine, with five different types of NATO platforms from various sources.

These weapons systems include American M777A2s, Polish AHS Krabs, Czech SpGH DANA-M2s, French CAESARs, Norwegian-supplied M109A3GN and Italian FH70 howitzers most likely supplied by Estonia. Other nations are expected to provide additional howitzer artillery systems, with Slovakia planning to supply Ukraine with eight Zuzana 2 howitzers, whilst the German and Dutch governments have jointly pledged 12 PzH 2000 platforms. Ukrainian troops are currently undergoing training in Germany and Poland to learn how to operate those systems once fully deployed and how to train other operators once in-country.

In recent weeks, President Zelensky has specifically requested allied nations provide Ukraine with MLRS systems in order to “take the initiative and liberate its territory”. Thus, in addition to the numerous howitzers and barreled artillery systems, the US and the UK have approved the supply of MLRS systems and advanced rocket munitions to Ukraine despite fears of a conventional or nuclear escalation, as such systems will prove invaluable in enabling the Ukrainian armed forces to target Russian artillery units, installations and logistical supplies far behind the front lines.

Last week, it was announced that the US would be providing Ukraine with four M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and an unspecified number of medium-range rockets with an effective range of 70km, though the current administration remains as of yet unwilling to supply Ukraine with Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATMS) munitions which have an effective range of 300km and could be interpreted as a serious escalation by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This announcement also indicated the levels of coordination occurring between some Western governments supplying Ukraine with military aid, as soon after the US announcement the UK Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace revealed that the British MOD would supply Ukraine with three M270 MLRS platforms and an unspecified quantity of M31A1 munitions, providing Ukrainian forces with a system capable of engaging targets up to 80km away. Once these systems are deployed on the battlefield, their additional effective range and firepower will enable Ukrainian forces to conduct effective ‘counter-battery’ fire and thus challenge Russia’s artillery dominance in the Donbas.

Though the Ukrainian armed forces still face an uphill battle, as the Russian military’s numerical advantage and increased logistical capabilities along the 500km frontline provides them with a tangible advantage, the provision of advanced artillery systems which significantly enhance their indirect fire capabilities will prove essential in enabling their forces to conduct successful military operations on a battlefield characterized by intensive artillery and rocket bombardment.

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