EASTERN UKRAINE—Explosions blasted in the backdrop as soldiers from the Ukrainian 10th Mountain Assault brigade prepared a drone for takeoff. The unit was in a shielded position two kilometers from the front line, north of the Russian-controlled Soledar in Eastern Ukraine.
The Daily Beast was with the drone unit last month—hidden among trees with a dugout for cover last —as the Russian army returned fire. Drone units are the eyes of the Ukrainian army, and their work is crucial in identifying Russian military equipment, such as tanks and artillery.
Soon after the drone unit had arrived, a Ukrainian position nearby was repeatedly hit by Russians forces. The drone was sent up to locate the source, and a Russian anti-tank gun was soon discovered near some trees. Petro, a corporal in the Ukrainian army and leader of the drone unit, called it in. A Ukrainian artillery unit responded, but only with one shot.
Petro told The Daily Beast it takes about six artillery shells to eliminate a target, but ammunition shortages forced them to use a single shot—just enough to scare the Russian anti-tank gun into backing away.
“A grenade can be sent to scare, and then they [Russia forces] don’t work for an hour or two,” said Petro. “It is obvious that we need more ammunition. The Russians also have ammunition problems but generally have a lot of equipment. We do our best to respond.”
A big problem
Ukrainian soldiers often describe the war as an artillery duel. Cities along the front line are getting pounded day and night, especially key cities like Bakhmut and Avdiivka. Ammunition shortages are now being reported all along the frontl ines.
“You’re on the front line. They’re coming toward you, and there’s nothing to shoot with,” a battalion commander in the 46th Air Assault Brigade told The Washington Post last month. Ukrainian soldiers defending the encircled city of Bakhmut have also reported shortages to local outlets. “We need ammo, ammo, ammo,” Illia, a mortarman with the 3017th unit of Ukraine National Guard, told the Kyiv Independent recently, adding that they often only get 10 shells a day, enough for a minute’s work.
A soldier with the Ukrainian 3rd Separate Assault Brigade in Eastern Ukraine, who spoke with The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, shared similar stories. He added that despite difficulties, his men continue to fight, inflicting high casualties on the advancing Russian army.
The West, meanwhile, is desperately trying to increase production for Ukraine. On March 20, the EU agreed to increase output and send one million ammunition rounds to Ukraine within 12 months.
“We have to admit that a million shells are a minimum of what Ukraine needs—but this is still far from what Ukraine needs to make a difference on the ground and support their offensive,” Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said about the deal.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has also demanded that the Russian defense industry increase its output of ammunition. In January, Sergei Chemezov, the head of the Russian defense company Rostec, said that its factories “are working almost around the clock” to make that happen.
Back with the drone unit, a sergeant, Oleg, told The Daily Beast that Western donations are essential for Ukraine’s ability to fight, but aren’t enough to cover the Ukrainian needs.
“Our biggest problem is that we are running out of artillery shells… To stop them [Russia], we must constantly work, work, work, and work. Grenades don’t last forever. We cannot work as intensively as we would like,” said Oleg in the dugout.
Petro added that at the beginning of the invasion, the Russians didn’t always take cover and stayed in positions for a long time, making it easy to hit them. Now, they keep their tanks on the move. “They adapt. They are starting to think about how to fight better. They learn from their problems and mistakes,” explained Petro.
After launching the drone, the unit near Soledar had eyes on Russian positions on the other side of the front line, and followed their every move. They spotted Russian soldiers walking between buildings and tanks on the move, noted everything down and passed along the information to their command.
“We either win, or we die. We have no other choice. Our people here are ready to die. We only want to win,” said Oleg.
It’s not only Ukrainian drones roaming the sky near the front line. The Russians also try to locate Ukrainian positions with drones. From the dugout, the drone team could hear a Russian aircraft dropping bombs, sending shockwaves under their feet. The muddy dugout protects the team from fragments, but could collapse if hit directly.
At a field hospital nearby a few days later, The Daily Beast could see the human cost of the bombardments. Sergei, a 40-year-old Ukrainian soldier, arrived with a bandage on one eye after being struck by fragments of a blast near the front line.
The last thing he remembered was the sound of a Russian drone, soon followed by a Russian attack with mortar grenades, landing all over the field. One hit a soldier next to him, who died instantly, he said. Shocked, Sergei had dropped to the ground for cover. This was only his first day at the front line after training in Great Britain.
He said it is hard to describe the fighting on the front line for people who haven’t been there.
“It’s terrible, but I don’t regret being here because I’m fighting for my children to live in freedom,” said Sergei, after discovering that, to his relief, a fragment had narrowly missed his eye.“We lack equipment… But it won’t stop us from fighting and stopping them.”
Others are not so lucky. Two soldiers arrived on stretchers, shaking from the cold and with fragments in their legs. Tourniquets had been wrapped around them for hours to stop the bleeding. They waited seven hours at the front line for evacuation after being hit.
One of them, who didn’t want to provide his name, told The Daily Beast that despite the situation at the front, he was eager to return to the front line when he recovers. If the Ukrainians run out of ammunition, he said, he would simply use rocks to fight.
Oleg shared similar sentiments. He told The Daily Beast that there is no other option than Ukrainian victory. He pointed to an online video in March, allegedly showing a captured Ukrainian soldier being shot by Russians while saying: “Glory to Ukraine.”
For Oleg and Petro, it is impossible to make any deal with Russia after seeing videos like these. Russian victory will mean the end of the Ukrainian state, they said.
“We have some of the best soldiers in the entire world. We opposed the second-largest army in the world very effectively. We are still here, not running away; we are ready to fight. We just need more artillery shells,” Oled said. “The most effective thing that NATO can do to stop Russia is to give us more ammunition. Then, we will stop them.”
“I hope that we can win this war as soon as possible so that we can go home,” added Petro. “I want to go home to my parents, my wife, and my brother. Go to work, go to a cafe, meet my friends.”