In a sluggish counter-offensive, Ukraine is attempting to recapture occupied territories. In some places, the soldiers used improvised weapons. Every success motivates, and yet one notices the long war period.
It falls eerily quiet after the soldiers park their gray pickup trucks, aim the rocket launchers on the truck beds, and check the target coordinates one last time. So quiet that the insects in the surrounding fields and the hum of the power line seem loud. There is a buzz in the air in the distance. The soldiers look worriedly at the sky: is it a Russian drone? Or just a car far away?
Then the crackling of Commander Volodymyr’s radio broke the silence. Air reconnaissance cleared the missile attack. The soldiers fire six projectiles from their rocket launcher pick-ups at Russian command posts.
It is not modern western weapons that this unit fights with. They are self-construction – a mixture of commercial cars and individual parts of obsolete Soviet weapons.
The shots reveal the position of the Ukrainian soldiers, and the danger of Russian counterattacks is now particularly great. Plumes of smoke can be seen on the horizon.
The counter-offensive is sluggish
A few minutes later, Volodymr and his soldiers have returned to their hiding place. They belong to the 108th Brigade and support the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Zaporizhia region in southern Ukraine.
So far, this counter-offensive has been sluggish. Despite some smaller reported gains in territory in the east and south, there have been no major breakthroughs along the front so far. Soldiers on several front sections report that minefields, anti-tank obstacles and Russian artillery fire are slowing down the advances.
After the attack, the soldiers have to change location quickly. Because every attack reveals where they are.
“We all wish it goes faster”
Commander Volodymyr is nevertheless confident that everything is going according to plan. But he admits: “We all want it to go faster.” At the same time he trusts the strategy of the General Staff. “It’s going as fast as it can,” he says.
He does not want to comment on statements by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the pace of the counteroffensive. Half of his unit is at the front, the other half in hiding. “When should we talk about something like that?”
In the shadow of a camouflage net and a ramshackle shed, slim, coffin-like wooden crates are stacked with more ammunition for the homemade rocket launchers. They currently have enough, says Volodymyr. With more modern guided missiles, however, they could accelerate the counteroffensive, he is convinced.
Three new improvised rocket launchers, like the ones Volodymyr’s unit uses, are in a former auto repair shop in the town of Zaporizhia, about 70 kilometers to the northwest. 15 men follow Maksim’s instructions, welding, hammering and screwing.
He wears a blue t-shirt, is 19 years old and is an engineering student. The blueprints for the weapons came from him: standard pick-ups were shortened, strengthened and upgraded with mechanical lifting constructions. The slewing ring of the gun is actually a construction for tractors. The men then mount three tubes from Soviet Grad rocket launchers on the loading area.
Soldiers brought the first plans with them last year, says Maksim. But it was immediately clear that this would not work.
That’s why he changed them, made improvements step by step. At first they were smiled at for the constructions, says Maksim. But by now more and more soldiers would be asking about their rocket launchers. They have already delivered 13 and three more are under construction.
A car repair shop becomes an armory – here in Zaporizhia, pick-ups are converted for war with simple means.
More mobile than traditional rocket launchers
Unlike conventional rocket launchers, they require less ammunition and are more mobile so that they can withdraw more quickly, reports Maksim. Compared to heavy western weapons, they make a less lucrative target for Russian artillery and could venture further, says Maksim.
Homemade weapons and constructs, with which commercially available devices can be converted for combat purposes, have become a typical feature of this war. Small mobile drones in particular are being converted into deadly weapons in countless workshops.
Before an attack, Ukrainian soldiers scan the sky because drones are a constant threat in this war.
Former farmer, now gunsmith
Maksim’s father Jurij runs the workshop. He used to be a farmer, he reports, like most of the others in the makeshift armory. But his farm, near which the front line of the counter-offensive is currently running, was destroyed by Russian attacks.
His personal motivation is therefore to help kill as many Russian soldiers as possible in order to retake Ukrainian territory. “We have no other choice,” he says.
But despite the sporadic progress, despite the small gains in territory made by the Ukrainian army, Yuri is worried about the future. “We all know that the arable land is now unusable for agriculture.”
There would be mines and unexploded explosive devices lying hidden everywhere. He estimates that it will take “more than a dozen years” to restore this fertile soil.
Ghost town on the front line
The small town of Welyka Nowosilka in the Donetsk region is also just a few minutes’ drive from the front line. The Ukrainian artillery has entrenched itself here and is engaged in skirmishes with Russian troops.
Several weeks ago, the Ukrainian army scored one of the most significant successes of its counter-offensive nearby: A total of four villages in the immediate vicinity were recaptured.
Dima fought in the liberation. In a flak jacket, helmet and at high speed, the 22-year-old races through the deserted streets of the village. Destroyed houses line the path to the right and left, overgrown gardens lie fallow, the hospital is damaged, and hardly anyone is out and about on the street.
Although the place is held by the Ukrainian army, it is deserted. Gunfire can be heard at short intervals: Ukrainian artillery and Russian shells.
How many soldiers died in the recaptures, Dima does not want to say. Only that he would like everyone to come home with “arms, heads and legs”. “But that’s probably not possible.”
Tired soldiers and Russian artillery
Under a small tree, Dima seeks privacy from Russian drones. He wipes the sweat from his dark hair with one hand and holds a cigarette in the other. Dima tells that during the fighting near Velyka Novosilka it is especially difficult to storm the fortified hills.
The main reason for this is the massive Russian artillery fire. He considers rumors that the Russian side is running out of ammunition to be a “myth”. The Russians would “shoot well and a lot, without any consideration,” said Dima.
Before getting back in the car, Dima says that morale in his unit is still high. But of course “the soldiers are also tired” – after more than a year in the war.
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