BAKHMUT, Ukraine — Ukrainian soldiers rushed around the howitzer in a field on a recent morning. In a flurry of activity, a man dragged a 106-pound high explosive shell from a gun truck. Another, using a wooden post, drove him into the breach.
“Charged!” cried the soldier, then he knelt on the ground and covered his ears with his hands.
The cannon fired with a rumble of thunder. A cloud of smoke rose. Leaves floated from nearby trees. The shell streaked towards the Russians with a metallic cry.
It’s a scene repeated thousands of times a day along the front line in Ukraine: artillery duels and long-range strikes from both sides on targets ranging from infantry to fuel depots to chariots.
And what followed the salvo fired Wednesday morning in eastern Ukraine was also indicative of the rhythm of this war: a coffee break.
It is a war fought in a cycle of opposites – bursts of chaos from outgoing or incoming shelling, then long lulls in which soldiers undertake the most routine of activities. Fighters who only minutes before unleashed destructive weapons with a thunderous roar settled in a grove of oak trees around a picnic table of wooden ammunition boxes, boiling water on a camping stove and pouring cups of instant coffee.
They rested in a forest of oak trees, overlooking a field of tall green grass and purple flowering thistles. Elsewhere, the soldiers took advantage of a lull to smoke or have their hair cut.
On a recent visit, soldiers from the 58th Brigade fighting in and around the town of Bakhmut, where the artillery war is raging, were attacking and being attacked by artillery.
All around the rolling green hills west of Bakhmut, puffs of brown smoke rose from incoming Russian strikes, targeting Ukrainian artillery positions.
The critical importance of long-range fire was one of the reasons the United States and other allies sent NATO-caliber howitzers to Ukraine. His army is on the verge of exhausting the entire stockpile of shells inherited from the USSR in its own arsenal and from the allied countries of Eastern Europe, and it is now turning to more abundant NATO ammunition. .
Russia has vast reserves of artillery ammunition, but there are signs that it is drawing on older reserves that more often than not do not explode on impact.
The howitzer inherited from the USSR that the Ukrainian team fires, a model called the D-20 nicknamed the “fishing lure”, has held up well, commander Lt. Oleksandr Shakin said. Long-range weapons supplied by the United States, such as the M777 howitzer and the high-mobility artillery rocket system, known as HIMARS, extended the reach of the Ukrainian army, but the major Part of the arsenal still consists of weapons from the Soviet era.
The cannon they fired was made in 1979, he said, and most of the shells were from the 1980s. Still, Lt. Shakin said, “They haven’t let me down yet.”
Typically, he said, it fires about 20 rounds a day from each gun, thus preserving Ukraine’s supply of 152 millimeter ammunition.
“We have a lot of motivation,” said Captain Kostyantin Viter, an artillery officer. “In front of us are our infantry and we have to cover them. Behind us, our families.
On Wednesday, inside the town of Bakhmut, at a location where soldiers from the 58th Brigade are garrisoned in an abandoned municipal building, the hiss of their colleagues’ shells could be heard overhead – aimed Russian forces east of the city.
The soldiers stood in a courtyard, smoking and listening to the hiss of shells overhead and the thud of explosions in the distance.
The hum of electric clippers also filled the air, as one soldier cut another’s hair. A few trucks were parked in the yard and a dozen soldiers were busy.
After about half an hour, a new noise added to the background of the distant booms: the sound of nearby explosions. What had been a languid summer morning became a scene of chaos.
Soldiers rushed for cover or dived to the ground. After a dozen booms, it was over. Acrid smoke billowed in the courtyard and shards of glass lay. “Is everyone alive?” shouted a soldier.
All the soldiers in the yard escaped unscathed. But the Russian rocket strike killed seven civilians and injured six others in the neighborhood near the soldiers’ base, authorities later reported.