(Bakhmut, special envoys). The men of Brigade 80 have their own flag that says: “Nobody except us.” It is the motto of the assault paratroopers in Ukraine and refers to the fact that no one but them can accomplish some tasks. The one carried out by these soldiers lives up to that definition. They are attached to the Bakhmut front and make up the artillery support of the defense line, one of the key elements in the war between Ukraine and Russia. And for weeks they have lived much of their time underground.
They do it in the increasingly icy cold of the Donbas, where temperatures of ten degrees below zero have been recorded in recent days, as if the imminent arrival of spring were just a lie. But no one complains about the cold right now. On the contrary, for them it seems to be the ideal temperature and some move from one place to another with their shirt collars open, without gloves, with their ears uncovered.
They are somewhere around Bakhmut, lost in the open field or between mountains, less than 10 kilometers from ground zero, the first line of fire. They show us the terrain and point out the places that can and cannot be filmed, and they are very insistent that this article cannot include any precision. It was the condition to allow the team of infobae access one of the defense positions and spend the day with the soldiers who support the infantry by fire that tries to hold Bakhmut and recover some of the lost ground on this combat front.
Nor can it be revealed how many people are in this position, but on the way to the place you can see different camouflaged tents on all sides of the field, light vehicles, other armored vehicles, cannons between the trees, soldiers dressed in white to blend in with the snow. Basically, the entire area around Bakhmut today is one huge fortress, the jaws of a wolf desperate to bite. The battle is fought without pause.
Here, in this artillery cache, two bunkers have been built. In the first one is sitting a young man who has just come down to rest, but he has not taken off his vest or helmet. His name is Andrii, he is 23 years old and he is a gunner: he helps to shoot and load the Howitzer 2S1 that they are in charge of. It is an amphibious vehicle that carries a self-propelled cannon. It is Soviet-made and dates from 1972, but it still works like the first day.
“How do you feel when you fire the Howitzer?”
I feel hate. Hate towards the enemy. That first of all. And then I also feel pride in what I’m doing.
“How do you deal with all this?” It is not a normal life to spend weeks underground protected from cannon fire.
—When you realize that your relatives and loved ones are waiting for you at home, the task makes sense. That alone helps me tolerate this. Being connected with my family, making video calls, talking, knowing about them. All of that helps me.
“Almost a year has passed since the war. Did you lose any comrades?
-Many. It is a difficult question that I would rather not answer, but the truth is that many. It is a big war, there are many losses, it could not be otherwise… However… I don’t know… It often happens to us that we are sitting around a table chatting and we remember our comrades who were also sitting with us before and no longer… They are always in our thoughts and in our hearts.
Andrii he maintains his composure, he doesn’t let out a tear or a hesitation, but you can see through his eyes that at 23 he already knows more about death than almost any boy of his generation.
His superior is a sergeant with a long beard who says that the Howitzer is a noble weapon, that if taken care of it never fails and offers “sniper precision”. He opens the hatches and proudly points out the elements of the armored vehicle: the sight, the shells, the pedals. He is protected in a kind of special trench and in front is covered by a wire mesh placed to protect him from kamikaze drones. It is that if one detected it, it could be launched immediately against it to destroy it. Thanks to the net, it wouldn’t hit him and he would explore sooner. In any case, it seems difficult to trace this location: the infrastructure is minimal, almost indistinguishable from the landscape.
About six people sleep in the bunker, maybe eight. It has a salamander that gives heat and they are provided with soft drinks, snacks, potatoes, chocolates, coffee, canned goods and a few other things. Nothing seems to be missing, definitely not too much either.
The sergeant, commander of the Howitzer, is 36 years old and already participated in the war in the early years, during 2014, 2015, 2016. At one point he left the army and tried to have a normal life, but it was difficult for him to return to civil society . “It wasn’t easy, I had some problems,” he says. “That is why when this war is over I will go back to work in the fields. That’s my thing, that’s what I like, ”he completes.
—When you have free time, who do you think about?
—In the family, the friends, and above all in the things I am going to do in the future. Here if you don’t dream about the future you can go completely crazy.
“What kind of targets do you usually attack?”
—Enemy troops. Light vehicles, sometimes more powerful armored vehicles. Enemy firing positions, bunkers, weapons. And a few more things.
—How do you feel when you shoot?
—It depends on the situation, the place, the case. But I always feel the adrenaline rush. It’s very hard to explain, you just feel it.
The difficult things to explain in the war between Ukraine and Russia are too many. If everyone thought in the first few weeks that it would be a quick win for Putin, everyone was wrong. What is certain is that during the first months the Ukrainians suffered a huge number of casualties as a result of the powerful Russian artillery. The basic principle of the use of artillery is the concentration of the muzzles of fire. The closer together the guns, the better, because it gives more fire support. The combat to advance in the territory could be defined as the combination of maneuver and fire support. The maneuver is to place the forces in the most convenient position to defeat the enemy. Fire support is the curtain to achieve this maneuver: fire is opened causing the enemy to protect themselves and thus the troops themselves can take positions with greater freedom.
The problem early on is that Russia was responding too quickly to Ukrainian artillery fire. It is the duel of counter-drums. That is to say: when a force opens fire, the enemy immediately detects it and opens counter-battery fire, in order to eliminate the threat. The Ukrainians early in the war suffered heavy casualties because the aforementioned Russian artillery powerhouse had a lot of counter-battery capability. With the much more modern cannons that the West delivered to Ukraine, they managed to even out the situation. They are lighter weapons that allow you to open fire and quickly disarm, to leave the place and not run the risk of retaliation. For example, the French Caesar cannon, which comes into position, shoots and disappears in four minutes. Thus, advances became more contested.
In this artillery position, permanent fire is not opened because there is no accumulation of hydrants, but only a very powerful weapon that acts when necessary or when the opportunity appears. The scouting parties give coordinates and the Howitzer comes out of its lair to make the attack. He then goes back into hiding and waits for a new target.
Victor He is another of the soldiers who has been in this kind of base for weeks. He is 23 years old and enlisted in the army on February 27, 2022, three days after the invasion began. He is tall and wide, and unlike the rest of him he doesn’t let his face be seen, although it may well be because of the cold, which at times is around ten degrees below zero.
For Viktor, the anniversary of the war is anecdotal, what hurts him is the number of friends he lost this year, more than in his entire life together. He is seen most of the time alone, cleaning his gun, getting it ready. At one point he walks off to another of the squad’s vehicles and sits on some empty ammo boxes. A while later, he agrees to talk. The first thing he says is something related to his comrades: “They are always in my memory.” His hat and scarf don’t reveal his expression, but for some reason you can guess something in the movement of his hands, in how he uses his body.
The conversation is short. Like the good, sadness also multiplies shortly.
“What do you think of the Russian soldiers?”
We can’t underestimate them. They have a powerful army. Well, at least they did. Even so, they continue to attack our positions. And they are not just mobilized, they have seriously trained soldiers. We will win anyway. Victory will be ours.
—How do you feel when you kill an enemy?
– What do I feel? I feel the recoil of my rifle on my shoulder.
Video and photos: Franco Fafasuli
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