BAKHMUT, Ukraine – On a recent morning, Ukrainian soldiers walked around a howitzer in a field. In the flurry of activity, a man carried a 106-pound explosive shell from a truck to the gun. Another broke it using a wooden pole.
“Loaded!” The soldier screamed, then knelt on the ground and covered his ears with his hands.
Gunfire erupted with the thunder of gunfire. A cloud of smoke spread. Leaves fluttered from the surrounding trees. With a metallic scream, the shell flew towards the Russians.
It’s a scene repeated thousands of times every day on the front lines in Ukraine: artillery duels and long-range strikes by both sides on targets ranging from infantry to fuel depots to tanks.
And what happened after Wednesday morning’s salvo in eastern Ukraine was also indicative of the rhythm of this war: a coffee break.
It is a war fought in counter-cycles – bursts of chaos from outgoing or incoming shelling and then a long lull in which soldiers resume their most routine activities. The soldiers who had fired their weapons of mass destruction with a thunderclap had minutes ago settled in a grove of oak trees around picnic tables of wooden ammunition boxes, boiling water on camp stoves and pouring instant cups of coffee.
They rested in an oak forest, overlooking a field of tall green grass and purple-flowered thistles. Elsewhere, soldiers used lulls to smoke or cut their hair.
In a recent visit, the soldiers of the 58th Brigade were fighting in and around the town of Bakhmut, where an artillery battle was underway, both being attacked and attacked by artillery.
On the grassy hills west of Bakhmut, Russian strikes targeting Ukrainian artillery positions raised plumes of brown smoke.
One of the reasons the United States and other allies have flown NATO-caliber howitzers to Ukraine is the critical importance of long-range fire. Its military is close to exhausting its entire stockpile of Soviet-legacy armor in its own arsenal and that of allies in Eastern Europe, and is now shifting to more abundant NATO ammunition.
Russia has a huge supply of artillery ammunition but there are indications that it is dipping into older stockpiles that no longer detonate on impact.
The Soviet-inherited howitzer fired by the Ukrainian team, a D-20 model nicknamed the “fishing lure,” has survived well, said the commander, Lt. Oleksandr Shakin. American-provided long-range weapons such as the M777 howitzer and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, have expanded Ukraine’s military, but the bulk of the arsenal is still Soviet-era guns.
He said the cannon they shot was made in 1979 and most of the shells were from the 1980s. Still, Lt. Shakeen said, ”They haven’t let me down yet.”
Typically, he said, he fires about 20 shells a day from each gun, conserving Ukraine’s dwindling supply of 152-millimeter ammunition.
“We have a lot of motivation,” said artillery officer Capt. Konstantin Witter. “We have our infantry in front of us and we have to cover them. We have our families behind us.
Inside the town of Bakhmut on Wednesday, soldiers of the 58th Brigade stationed in an abandoned municipal building could hear the whistles of their colleagues’ shells passing overhead – aimed at Russian forces east of the town.
Soldiers stood in the courtyard smoking and hearing bullets overhead and explosions in the distance.
The sound of electric clippers also filled the air as one soldier cut another’s hair. A few trucks were parked in the yard and dozens of soldiers were milling about.
Half an hour or so later, a new sound joined the distant boom: the sound of nearby explosions. A dull summer morning was a scene of confusion.
Soldiers dashed to the ground for cover or dove. After a dozen booms, it was over. A thick plume of smoke billowed through the courtyard, and shards of glass fell. “Is everyone alive?” shouted a soldier.
All the soldiers in the yard escaped safely. But a Russian rocket strike killed seven civilians and wounded six others in an area near the military base, officials said later.