1 of 7 | A Ukrainian soldier fires on a Russian position along the Donetsk frontline. Photo by Patrick Hilsman/UPI
UPI freelancer Patrick Hilsman and documentary filmmaker Dylan Burns traveled to the front lines in Ukraine in September to film a documentary focused on Ukraine's artillery crews. They were given access by the Ukrainian military to interview and photograph troops in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions and filed this report to UPI. The soldiers' full identities are withheld for their security.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- Across the more than 800 + mile frontline of the war in Ukraine, soldiers say, "Artillerymen's sweat saves an infantryman's blood." That is what artillery troops have taken from their time on the along the Zaporizhzhia and Donbas front.
They are high-priority targets of the Russian army, and they know it. The war has been characterized by long artillery bombardments, with territory often trading hands only once sufficient shells have smashed enemy positions to make way for assault teams. Holding territory often comes down to how much fire support those dug in troops can call upon -- and the accuracy of that support.
With both sides knowing that artillery forms the backbone of the other, they are often targeted by drones and counter artillery fire, motivating soldiers to spend much of their time underground in dugouts.
In interviews in the Donetsk region in late September, Ukrainian combat medics said artillery is the deadliest weapon on the battlefield, outranking small arms fire and bombs from aircraft.
Medics were working at a stabilization point run by the 3rd assault brigade of the Ultra Nationalist Division Azov near the front, treating wounded soldiers until they can reach a hospital.
The brigade has been involved in some of the most intensive fighting in the war, most recently along the Bakhmut axis in the Donetsk region. A medic from Kyiv who specialized in blood work before the war and volunteered after the Russians marched on his city in 2022 said over 70% of injuries they treat are artillery related. This aligns with data from The Journal of the American College of Surgeons indicating that more than 70% of Ukraine's combat casualties come from artillery shelling and rocket barrages.
Some examples of injuries shown by the same 3rd assault brigade medic on X-ray scans include tiny pieces of shrapnel embedded in a soldier's upper torso, and in another's eye socket. It doesn't take much over a 100-pound shell to put someone on an operating table, or worse.
An X-ray shows a head injury in an Azov Battalion medical facility in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Image courtesy of Ukrainian military
The scale of recent artillery bombardments since the 2022 invasion is much larger than it was during eight previous years of semi-frozen combat in the Donbas. Current fighting requires the full strength of Russian and Ukrainian artillery stockpiles, with both sides looking abroad for new supplies. The Ukrainians, lacking enough domestic production, sought help from NATO and European Union member states.
Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Bulgaria and other post-Soviet states have sent their old Soviet stockpiles of 152mm or 122mm artillery guns and shells to help maintain Ukraine's Soviet-era weapons systems. Ukraine has also started domestic production of these shells through its state-run manufacturer.
Other nations that use NATO-standard 155mm artillery systems, like the United States, have tried to increase production to meet Ukraine's need, while sending more modern artillery systems like the American-made M777 howitzer. South Korea, a non-NATO state, has also transferred 500,000 155mm shells with the United States, in order to free up more American reserves to be sent to Ukraine.
Defense companies, like German-based Rheinmetall, have committed to increasing shell production. But they have still been unable to keep up with Ukrainian demand. The United States provided stockpiles of cluster munitions, as a "bridging capability" in the meantime, in the words of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Russia has had fewer international allies to call upon for new shells and munitions -- North Korea among them -- and has largely relied on its Soviet-era reserves as its production lines have been unable to keep up with their rate of fire. That doesn't mean they haven't been trying. Russia is making investments into its military production, with Russia planning to spend 6% of its GDP on the military, and defense production outpacing social spending.
But it is still not enough to replace the 10 million to 11 million shells Russia used in Ukraine in 2022. This large deficit has led to shell rationing and using old shells that were previously declared unfit.
A report from the Estonian Defense Ministry indicates Russia continues to consistently fire more shells than Ukraine, even if the rate of fire has decreased.
Near the front in Zaporizhzhia
A Ukrainian artillery crew fighting within 10 miles range of the Russian lines in Zaporizhzhia to support the counteroffensive was using the modern American-made M777 howitzer system.
One soldier, nicknamed "Hammer" for his large hands, has been serving since the Russians invaded Ukraine in 2014, with only a short vacation in 2017. In his nine years of experience, he said, the Howitzers were much quicker to set up, lighter and more accurate than the Soviet-era Giantsent gun he had used before. But they require more maintenance.
Near the artillery gun, shells were lined up, with one standing out in particular. A soldier named Dimitri, who had a Punisher patch with the Ukrainian colors on his body armor, pointed to the shell, before indicating that it was a cluster munition. These were provided to Ukraine at the request of the government from American stockpiles.
What differentiates cluster munitions from traditional shells that carry a single warhead with one explosive is that a cluster munition breaks apart above the target, releasing smaller bomblets over the enemy position. When the bomblets fall, they spread out, expanding the effect to an area as large as multiple football fields. The cluster shells the artillery team had on hand were American-made M864 shells, which each carry 72 bomblets.
Dimitri showed a photo on his phone that he said showed the aftermath of cluster munitions rounds used in combat. The picture showed a trench along a tree line in the middle of an open field, covered and surrounded by impact craters that tore through the countryside, covering the green field with black spots. This devastating destructive capacity has made the use of cluster munitions controversial.
They have been used by Russia since the start of the invasion, at times in populated urban centers. There have been documented instances of Ukraine using them, as well, since early in the war. Many countries have signed treaties banning their use, with over 111 nations party to the Convention Prohibiting Cluster Munitions. Russia, Ukraine and the United States are not signatories to the treaty.
The indiscriminate nature of the submunitions make them especially dangerous for civilians in urban environments, with unexploded bomblets posing a risk long after a war's conclusion. The Biden administration has been criticized by some for agreeing to fulfill the Ukrainian government's request for cluster munition shells.
Dimitri said he wasn't too concerned, as he claims these American munitions have a lower dud rate than their Soviet counterparts.
From their position, you could hear what sounded like duds being fired by the Russians -- the whistle of a shell flying overhead, but no impact.
Inside the dugout
Not too far from the artillery gun is the dugout where the soldiers slept, camouflaged by foliage. It wasn't visible from even a few feet away. Soldiers have to crouch to get inside. It measures about 5 by 7 feet, just enough for two people to sleep in. The walls were made of packed soil, the ceiling constructed of logs with a plastic tarp on top. This was supported by another wood log that was stood up in the middle of the dugout to support the structure.
It wasn't a fortress, but the wood and soil provided protection from shrapnel, even if it wouldn't fare as well against a direct hit. Hammer said that to stay warm in these holes in the ground during the winter, soldiers bundle up in warm clothes, use sleeping bags and bed rolls. They might have a heater if they can take the time to install a pipe for the smoke to filter out.
This type of warfare takes its toll on the soldiers. Victor, a military psychologist attached to the artillery crew in Zaporizhzhia whose last name was withheld for security, tried to explain the unseen injuries that soldiers carry.
"All injuries are bad injuries. But sometimes, injuries of the body are easier to recover from than injuries inside your head. When there are explosions near you, it can cause concussions. When you see a soldier, you cannot understand what's inside their head."
Victor recalled a soldier telling him, "I want to fight. I want to be here, and shoot from the cannon. I want to do my job. I don't know why, but when I hear the sound of an explosion, I cannot control my body." He described how his hands and knees tremored.
Victor said Ukraine may not be ready to fill the mental health needs of all these soldiers returning from war -- and civilians who have lived through it.
"We will have a very big problem around mental health with soldiers, and all of our society. Because not only soldiers have PTSD."
Near the front in Donetsk
In the Donetsk region, roughly 4 miles from Russian positions, a trench system goes about 6 feet deep. It extends along the entire position, from the ammunition supply, to the artillery gun, to the underground dugout, deep enough that soldiers walk down steps to find the entrance. This is where the soldiers spend much of their time and was much more extensive than the impromptu dugout in Zaporizhzhia.
They enter the underground refuge through a wooden door on hinges with a metal handle. They boil water on a stove that had been set up in the corner of the room. The flies made it difficult to enjoy.
A single bright light bulb emits enough illumination to see everything inside the dugout. The walls were made up of wooden planks, with logs still covered in tree bark supporting the structure diagonally and horizontally. The soldier's helmets, body armor and uniforms hang from the logs across the ceiling.
There was enough space to stand up straight and an area with bunk beds made of wooden planks, bed rolls and sleeping bags. They could sleep eight people at a time side by side. Plywood shelves and plastic bags were drilled into the walls, which held food items and smaller pieces of equipment like radios.
On one of these shelves sat a Starlink router, which the soldiers used not only to communicate with military headquarters, but also to play video games in their free time.
A Ukrainian soldier pointed to the bunks where his comrades sleep and named the games they play, "PUBG," "World of Tanks," "Angry Birds."
The deeper dugout not only protects them more from the elements than a shallow dugout would, but also from shrapnel that Russian counter artillery fire brings. While surviving a direct hit would still be a challenge for the wooden bunker dug into the earth, it certainly helped the odds.
The soldiers eventually got a call on their radio from headquarters with an order to shell a Russian position. They sprung into action, running out of the bunker, throwing down their cigarettes as they ran through the trenches to get to their Soviet-era D-20 artillery piece, which first went into production shortly after World War II. They named the gun "Dasha."
The team quickly prepared a shell, loaded the gun, aimed and fired a single shell before calling urgently for everyone to scurry back to the relative safety of the dugout for safety in case of return fire.
The soldiers soon celebrated what they said was a direct hit on a silo the Russians had turned into a military position.
The shell shortage has prompted artillery teams to be careful with their supply, trying to have better accuracy to compensate for a deficit in ammunition between them and the Russians. Soldiers repeatedly said they need more shells.
After a short wait without a response from the Russians, we were given the go-ahead to leave the area. A day later, the position was attacked. No casualties were reported from the artillery team, who said Russians had died in the assault.
One of the ways artillery crews try to avoid return fire is the "shoot and scoot" tactic. When an artillery crew fires a volley at an enemy position and before the enemy can respond and fire back, they pack up their artillery and drive away quickly.
A Ukrainian BM-21 multiple rocket-launcher system, which is self-propelled and moves like a truck, is used to circumvent artillery firing back at them. The BM-21 fires multiple cheap unguided rockets over a large area. It is particularly effective against convoys of vehicles and large groupings of soldiers preparing an attack, said "Barber", one of the operators of the BM-21, who has been working with this system since before the 2022 invasion.
Fearing Russian artillery barrages in response, Barber said the crew has to constantly move from place to place, and only has 4 minutes at the firing point to work before they leave. This speed takes experience, but can save the lives of the crew from enemy bombardment.
Barber recalled instances where just after leaving a position, Russian shelling would hit, and some instances in which they were attacked while still firing at their designated target. This leads to a deadly game of cat and mouse, as Russian and Ukrainian artillery teams try to hit each other while avoiding being hit, with no end in sight.