MYKOLAIV/KHERSON FRONTLINE — It’s now been over eight months of full-scale warfare since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But while the war continues, the features of the battlefield have changed significantly — both in the systems employed, and the tactics used to counter them.
Ukraine’s military, which began the particular war with largely Soviet-era equipment, has transitioned into an ever-more Western-armed and -trained force. By contrast, much of Russia’s best equipment — and its most professional troops — have been destroyed or killed in weeks of relentless combat, leading Moscow to draw on older stocks as the Russian force regresses.
Few people, or units, know this better than Ukraine’s 59th Motorized Brigade. Stationed in Kherson oblast at the start of the war, the 59th was subjected to the full force of one of Russia’s best-prepared strike groups, an armored thrust northwards from occupied Crimea. But while they were forced to cede Kherson City in early March, the particular 59th held back Russia’s spearheads through seizing Mykolaiv, the next city along the coast towards Odesa. Now, after seven a few months of largely static warfare, the changing balance of power sees the 59th poised to play a major role in the upcoming battle in order to liberate Kherson.
The soldiers of the 59th are bullish on their prospects of beating the Russians back at Kherson Town. They talk dismissively from the battlefield effectiveness of the Iranian drones that have made headlines in recent weeks — weapons well-suited to harassing civilian infrastructure but less effective against prepared military units. Consistent degradation associated with Russian logistics and supply lines has hampered the enemy’s ability to effectively contest the battlefield. European leaders’ desperate moves to staff their front line along with unwilling conscripts, their focus on looting Kherson of anything moveable, and even their use of air defense systems to attack ground targets, all buoy the particular 59th’s morale. They smell blood in the water.
On a sunny day in late October, one platoon from the brigade was catching some sleep during a break in the action at a disused gas station a few kilometers back from the frontline. The soldiers plus officers present shared with Military Times their impressions of how the war has changed — for them, often for the better — over the past few months.
One of the hot topics in current weeks has been Russia’s heavy deployment of Iranian-made Shahed 136 loitering munitions. Carrying a warhead of up to 50 kilograms and with a range of 1, 500 kms, these ‘kamikaze drones’ have been employed across Ukraine, in particular to hit heating and power facilities in Kyiv and other cities. While they have been used on the battlefield as well, soldiers say they have not been particularly effective militarily.
“Iranian drones are attacking Mykolaiv constantly, ” says Vadym, a senior lieutenant in the 59th. “They’re active over the entire region, but most of them are shot down. They are only really useful against civilian targets, when they can slip past air defense, ” he says.
Among the difficulties drones present to many air protection systems is a small radio and heat signature, which can make it difficult to achieve lock-on. With advance warning of an approaching drone, however , this can be mitigated — plus there are other tools that work even better.
“It’s difficult to hit [a Shahed] with any system that works by warmth lock, such as a Stinger [MANPAD], unless you have extra time to track it, ” Vadym says. “But our foreign partners have provided us with some very effective systems. The particular German Gepards [self-propelled anti-aircraft guns] are very good against them. They see the [drone] and can easily shoot it straight down. Even machine guns can down [Shaheds] quite easily if they are not flying too high — they are quite large and slow, ” he explains.
Other troops agree with Vadym’s estimation.
“These drones [Shaheds] are not a problem at all, ” says Zhenya, a sergeant major. “If you have caution and anti-aircraft weapons, you can down all of them quite easily. That’s why [Russia] uses them against towns — they are not useful on the battlefield, ” he says.
The use of these systems speaks to the difficulties Moscow is facing in maintaining a steady level of long-range strikes eight several weeks into the battle. As its stocks of precision-guided munitions deplete, Russia offers turned to other methods, some not designed for the task: soldiers say that S-300 missiles, originally designed for air defense, are now one of the primary weapons used to strike Mykolaiv. Despite their own poor accuracy when used against floor targets, the particular missiles are still fired at the city regularly at night.
Ukraine’s efforts in order to degrade Russian logistics and supply routes in Kherson are also paying dividends.
“American HIMARs [precision rocket artillery] happen to be incredibly useful for us. Once we started hitting the bridges, the intensity of the particular [Russian] shelling decreased a lot, ” says Vadym, describing the Ukrainian shelling of the Antonovsky plus Nova Kakhovka bridges, the only two connections between Kherson and the rest of Russian-held southern Ukraine. “We destroyed a lot of their artillery and ammunition warehouses too. Before, [the Russians] used to shell everything, just firing as much as they wanted at any targets. Now, they are forced to economize, ” Vadym says.
American-provided long-range artillery systems have been crucial to shifting the tide here as well. Vadym specifically names the M109 Paladin self-propelled howitzer and the M777, whose guided Excalibur shells can hit targets up to 40 miles away with high precision.
“Before we had the particular M777, we couldn’t reach their [artillery] systems, but now we can, ” he says.
Finally, it is not simply Russian equipment that has been depleted. Much of Moscow’s professional infantry corps, many of whom were transferred from eastern Ukraine to Kherson over the summer in anticipation of an impending Ukrainian assault, has been put out of action. With competent manpower consistently lacking and contract servicemen, many of whom have been fighting without a break since Feb. 24, increasingly dwindling, Russia has thrown in a new stopgap to bolster the ranges: conscripts.
The men from the 59th are usually unimpressed by what they have seen.
”We’ve already gone up towards their mobilized men here, ” states Mikhail, another senior lieutenant at an article closer to the front. “They are nearly useless. Many of them may hardly hold a gun, let alone a position. We have killed their particular professional troops, and now [Russia] is hoping to slow us down along with bodies, ” he says.
As the situation shifts in Ukraine’s favor, the soldiers want for only one thing: extra artillery plus tanks to crack Russia’s defenses and exploit breakthroughs in the inevitable assault upon Kherson.
“We have almost everything we need, ” Vadym states. “We just need a bit more artillery, to fight against their guns, and especially tanks — maybe the most important element in an attack. There will be positive developments here [in Kherson] very soon. ”
Neil Hauer is a freelance reporter covering the war within Ukraine and the Caucasus at large. You can follow him on Twitter in @NeilPHauer.