Powerful American artillery is sent to Ukraine to help fight.
The most dangerous weapons that the West has given to Ukraine so far are now being used in battle. Will they make a big difference for Ukraine's military in a war that has mostly turned into an artillery battle?
The weapon that Ukraine hopes will make a big difference in its war with Russia is hidden in a pile of branches cut from nearby trees. From more than a few feet away, it is almost impossible to see.
Soon, a single round goes flying toward Russian positions with a boom and a howling, metallic shriek.
It is the M777 howitzer, which is made in the U.S. The Ukrainian military has been waiting for this weapon because it shoots farther, moves faster, and is easier to hide.
Three months into the war in Ukraine, the first M777s, which are the deadliest weapons the West has given so far, have been sent to fight in the east of the country. Their arrival has given the Ukraine new hope that it can gain artillery superiority at least in some frontline areas. This is an important step toward military victories in a war that is now mostly fought at long distances on flat, open steppe.
The American howitzers are big machines made of steel and titanium that are wrapped in hydraulic hoses and sit on four foldable legs. Commanders in Ukraine say that since they arrived around May 8, they have already fired hundreds of rounds, destroying armored vehicles and killing Russian soldiers.
In an interview, Col. Roman Kachur, who was in charge of the 55th Artillery Brigade, which was the first unit to use the weapon, said, "This weapon brings us closer to victory." He said, "With every modern weapon, every precise weapon, we get closer to victory." This was a mix of confidence and a request for more weapons.
Western military analysts say they don't know how close it is. Even though the Russians are still fighting hard in the eastern Donbas region, the arrival of the new weapons does not mean that they will win. Much depends on numbers.
In a phone interview, Michael Kofman, who is in charge of Russian studies at C.N.A., a research center in Arlington, Va., said, "Artillery is very much a numbers game." "The Russians have one of the most powerful artillery armies."
The United States said weeks ago that it would send the howitzers, but so far, most of what we know about how they will be used in battle comes from online videos that soldiers have mostly posted anonymously. The military gave The New York Times a tour of a gun line in eastern Ukraine on Sunday. This was the first time that an independent international news source could confirm that the guns are being used.
Military experts say that the full effect won't be seen for at least two weeks because Ukraine hasn't trained enough soldiers to use all 90 of these howitzers that the US and other allies have promised. Now, there are only about a dozen guns at the front.
Getting more powerful weapons for Ukraine is a political hot potato. The US, France, Slovakia, and other Western countries are sending in artillery and support systems like drones, counter-battery radar, and armored vehicles for towing guns, even though Russia accuses the West of fighting a proxy war in Ukraine and threatens unspecified consequences if the weapons shipments keep coming.
In the Western coalition, people have different ideas about how aggressively to deal with Russia. France, Italy, and Germany have suggested that Ukraine use more powerful weapons to push for a cease-fire that could lead to a negotiated withdrawal of Russian forces.
The Ukrainian government has said no. They say that momentum is on their side and that talks should only happen after they win on the battlefield and take back territory. This was an almost unthinkable idea before Ukraine's military dealt Russia several setbacks before Western heavy weapons arrived.
In an interview on Ukrainian TV over the weekend, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that a diplomatic solution would not be possible until Ukraine won more military victories and got more weapons. Russian troops have been pushed out of Kyiv and from positions near Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. However, the Ukrainian military is now under a lot of pressure in a smaller battle for control of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
He compared ending the war with a mix of military gains and talks to a hybrid car, which is neither gas-powered nor electric. "And that's what war is like: it's hard."
Mr. Zelensky said, "Victory will be bloody."
In any case, both sides say that diplomatic talks stopped about a week ago, which means that the outcome will be decided on the battlefields again. And not everything has gone well for Ukraine. Now, Russian forces are getting close to encircling the city of Sievierodonetsk, which could trap Ukrainian troops inside.
Analyst Mr. Kofman said, "I'm surprised that people think Ukrainian forces can take this many casualties and still be ready to go on the offensive right away."
Still, the new types of Western artillery with longer ranges are the most powerful and destructive of the many types that NATO countries now have. They can shoot three miles farther than the Msta-S self-propelled howitzer, which was the most common artillery system used by the Russian army in the Ukraine war, and 10 miles farther if they use a GPS-guided projectile.
Out on the open plains of the east, jeeps turn quickly into a tree line after a long drive over potholed roads and dirt tracks.
In the cat-and-mouse artillery battles that have been going on in the war for the past few weeks, secrecy is the most important thing. Soldiers quickly put freshly cut branches on the vehicles to hide them from enemy drones.
Soldiers value not only how far their guns can shoot, but also how quickly they can hide and move their guns and other vehicles.
Ukrainian officers say that the dozen or so howitzers in two artillery batteries had fired 1,876 rounds by Sunday. The howitzers were put into action about two weeks ago.
With a mix of airburst, anti-personnel fragmentation, and other types of projectiles, the Ukrainian gunners have destroyed at least three Russian armored vehicles and, according to Colonel Kachur, killed at least a few dozen Russian soldiers.
At the firing line in the trees, there were empty ammunition boxes and spent bullets all over the foxholes. Kalashnikov rifles leaned against tree trunks.
They didn't say what they were looking for.
He said that the guns would be used to destroy Russian positions and military infrastructure, like supply depots and command posts. Ukrainian soldiers say that the howitzers will also save civilian lives by hitting Russian artillery that is firing on their towns.
Ukrainian artillery officers say that the new types of Western artillery that are coming into the country now have several advantages over the old Soviet systems. One of the most important things about them is that they can be used with NATO-sized shells. This eases worries that Ukraine might soon run out of ammunition made to Soviet standards, which is now mostly made in Russia.
In addition to the weapons that the U.S. is sending, the French have promised to send Caesar truck-mounted howitzers, which can quickly drive away after firing. This is called "shoot and scoot," and it is a move that the U.S. is also sending. Howitzers have also been promised by Slovakia.
Military analysts say that the American M777, also known as the "triple seven," is likely to have the most impact for the number of guns given because it can fire accurate, long-range shots when enough crews are trained to use it.
The main problem is training. About 200 Ukrainian soldiers have been trained so far by the US in six-day courses at bases in Germany. The Ukrainian military sent about half of this group to the front and sent the other half to train more Ukrainians. Mykhailo Zhirokhov, who wrote "Gods of Hybrid War," a book about artillery in Ukraine's war with Russian-backed separatists, said it could take a few more weeks to train soldiers to use all 90 guns that are scheduled to arrive.
Mr. Zhirokhov said that smaller numbers of the computer-controlled, self-moving Caesar guns from France will also help, but it takes months to learn how to use them. He said, "Even the French think they are too hard."
After the soldiers fired the M777, it was back on its side and the barrel was covered with branches to hide it. "Move faster!" yelled a police officer. The crew then ran away, in case the Russians knew where they were.