‘It’s hard, but they’re holding on’: On the ground in Ukraine, the war depends on U.S. weapons

ON A UKRAINIAN POSITION ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF BAKHMUT – The Ukrainian military commander pointed to a small, cellar-door-like opening tucked into the snow-covered hillside and said, “If I say to you ‘run,’ you run into the forest and hide in there.”

“In there” was a shelter in the event of a Russian attack, a normal occurrence here. 

The lieutenant colonel is a bearded, barrel-chested, and battle-hardened 39-year-old artillery commander. His first name is Oleksandr but “Fury” is his call sign or nickname for sensitive military communications. Like all military personnel spoken to for this story, he did not want his last name or the units he commands to be identified. 

Infantry arms and equipment, air defense systems, missiles, helicopters, drones, armored vehicles, radar and communications antennas, satellite imagery, trucks, trailers, coastal patrol boats, and the list goes on. The first batch of U.S. Abrams tanks destined for Ukraine is expected to arrive as early as this year. American-made F-16 fighter jets have been on Ukraine’s wish list since the start of Russia’s unprovoked invasion. As of now, the U.S. has not agreed to give them to them.

Amid domestic struggles ranging from spiraling living costs to rising refugee arrivals, polls show Americans are growing less enamored with providing arms to Ukraine.

Yet Ukrainian military officials say U.S. weapons are making all the difference. To show how, a senior Ukrainian military intelligence officer and several special forces soldiers guided USA TODAY in mid-February to a secret location on a ridge a few miles outside the frontline town of Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s mineral-rich eastern Donbas region.

“This weapon changed the trajectory of the war for us,” said Fury as he stood on frozen ground near what he regards as one of the Ukrainian military’s most prized possessions: an American-made M777 howitzer, a powerful, towable and easily hidden long-range artillery weapon his unit had named “Sofiyka.” Made of steel and titanium, its hydraulic hoses and pumps enable its artillery turret to slide in and out with relative ease. 

Sofiyka was backed against a thicket of trees, its cannon aimed toward Bakhmut. 

A few hours earlier, another howitzer operated by Fury’s unit named “Krishna,” located on an adjacent ridge, had been fired on by a Russian shell.

It had not sustained any damages. “It’s a day spent in vain here if you haven’t been fired at,” said Fury, chuckling to himself. As he spoke, there was a deep thud as Krishna sent an explosive payload sailing toward Russian targets in Bakhmut.

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