POKROVSK, Ukraine — Disguised in a pile of branches cut from nearby trees, the weapon Ukraine hopes will make a crucial difference in its war with Russia is that good from more than a few yards away like invisible.
Soon a single missile erupts with a bang and a howling metallic screech as it sails towards Russian positions.
It’s the American-made M777 howitzer. It shoots further, moves faster and is easier to hide, and that’s what the Ukrainian military has been waiting for.
Three months after the start of the war in Ukraine, the first M777s – the deadliest weapons yet deployed by the West – are now being used in combat in eastern Ukraine. Their arrival has boosted Ukraine’s hopes of attaining artillery superiority in at least some frontline areas, an important step toward military victories in a war now mostly fought over long-range, flat, open steppes.
The American howitzers are chunky machines of steel and titanium, encased in hydraulic hoses and perched on four struts that fold up and down. They have already fired hundreds of shots, destroyed armored vehicles and killed Russian soldiers since arriving on May 8, Ukrainian commanders say.
“This weapon brings us closer to victory,” said Colonel Roman Kachur, commander of the 55th Artillery Brigade, whose unit was the first unit to use the weapon, in an interview. Mixing confidence with an implied plea for more guns, he added: “With every modern weapon, every precise weapon, we get closer to victory.”
How close remains unclear, Western military analysts say. The arrival of the new weapons is no guarantee of success as the Russians remain engaged in heavy fighting in the eastern Donbass region. A lot depends on numbers.
“Artillery is all about quantity,” Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia, said in a phone interview. “The Russians are one of the largest artillery armies you can face.”
The United States said weeks ago it would supply the howitzers, but their combat use has so far been hinted at mostly in online videos, mostly posted anonymously by soldiers. On Sunday, the New York Times military offered a tour of a weapons line in eastern Ukraine, the first independent confirmation by international media that the weapons are in use.
Military analysts say the full impact won’t be felt for at least two weeks, as Ukraine has yet to train enough troops to fire all 90 such howitzers pledged by the United States and other allies. There are only about a dozen guns left at the front.
Arming Ukraine with more powerful weapons is a politically sensitive issue. The United States, France, Slovakia and other Western nations have rushed in artillery and support systems — such as drones, counter-battery radar and armored vehicles to tow guns — while Russia has accused the West of waging a proxy war in Ukraine and is threatening to do so unspecified consequences if arms shipments continue.
Disagreements have emerged in the Western coalition over how aggressively to be aggressive towards Russia. France, Italy and Germany have suggested that Ukraine is using the leverage of more powerful weapons to push for a ceasefire that could result in a negotiated withdrawal of Russian forces.
Ukrainian officials have pushed back. They insist that the momentum is on their side and that talks should only take place after victories on the battlefield and recapture of territories – a once almost unimaginable idea that became more tenable after the Ukrainian military attacked Russia ahead of the arrival of heavy Western weapons inflicted several setbacks.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an interview on Ukrainian television over the weekend that a diplomatic solution would come only after additional military victories for Ukraine along with an influx of arms. Ukraine’s military has driven Russian troops out of Kyiv and positions near the country’s second-biggest city, Kharkiv, but is now under heavy pressure in a more limited struggle for control of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.
“It’s like a car, not gas or electric, it’s a hybrid,” he said of the end of the war with a mix of military achievements and conversation. “And that’s how war is: complicated.”
“The victory will be bloody,” said Mr. Zelensky.
In any case, diplomatic talks stalled about a week ago, both sides said, throwing the outcome back onto the battlefields. And not everything went to Ukraine. Russian forces are now on the verge of encircling the city of Sieverodonetsk and are threatening to encircle Ukrainian troops.
“I’m surprised that people believe that the Ukrainian armed forces can absorb this level of casualties and then be ready to go on the offensive right after that,” said Mr. Kofman, the analyst.
Still, the new, longer-range western artillery is the most powerful and destructive of the many types now deployed by NATO allies. They fire three miles further than the artillery system most commonly used by the Russian army in the Ukraine war, the Msta-S self-propelled howitzer – and 10 miles further when firing a precise, GPS-guided projectile.
Out in the open plains of the East, a long drive over potholed roads and dirt tracks ends with jeeps quickly swerving into a tree line.
In the cat-and-mouse artillery duels that have defined the war over the past few weeks, secrecy is of the utmost importance. Soldiers waste no time stacking freshly cut branches on top of vehicles as camouflage against enemy drones.
In the artillery duels, soldiers appreciate not only the range, but also the ability to quickly hide and move guns and support vehicles.
Since their deployment two weeks ago, the dozen or so howitzers, which operated in two artillery batteries, had fired 1,876 rounds by Sunday, according to Ukrainian officers.
Using a mixture of air blasts, anti-personnel fragmentation shells and other types of projectiles, the Ukrainian gunners destroyed at least three Russian armored vehicles and killed at least several dozen Russian soldiers, according to Colonel Kachur.
Empty ammo boxes and spent cartridges lay scattered between foxholes along the line of fire in the trees. Kalashnikov rifles leaned against tree trunks.
Officials did not say what they were aiming at.
The purpose of the guns is to grind down Russian positions and military infrastructure such as ammunition depots and command posts, he said. Ukrainian soldiers say the howitzers will also save civilian lives by hitting Russian artillery firing on their cities.
The types of western artillery flowing into Ukraine now have several advantages over legacy Soviet systems, Ukrainian artillery officers said. Among the most important is their compatibility with NATO shells, allaying fears that Ukraine could soon run out of Soviet-standard ammunition, now mostly made in Russia.
In addition to the weapons the United States is sending, the French have promised Caesar truck-mounted howitzers capable of quickly driving away after firing in a maneuver known as “shoot and scoot.” Slovakia has also pledged howitzers.
But the American M777, known as the Triple Seven, is likely to have the greatest impact for the amount of weapons deployed, delivering long-range precision fire if enough crews are trained to use it, military analysts say.
The bottleneck is education. The United States has so far trained around 200 Ukrainian soldiers in six-day courses at bases in Germany. The Ukrainian military roughly divided this group in half, sending some to the front lines and others to train more Ukrainians. Training soldiers for all 90 guns — the amount expected to arrive — could take a few more weeks, said Mykhailo Zhirokhov, author of a book on artillery in Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed separatists, Gods of Hybrid War.
Smaller numbers of France’s computer-controlled, self-propelled Caesar guns will also help, Mr Zhirokhov said, but learning to use them takes months. “Even the French find them too complicated,” he said.
After the soldiers fired the M777, the gun was again horizontal, its barrel was covered with camouflaged branches. “Move faster!” shouted an officer. The crew then set off if the Russians had established their location.