Observations from the Donbas Front Line
By Colonel (Retired) Lee Van Arsdale and Daniel Rice
There is a certain immediacy to being on the wrong end of artillery fire. For thousands of Ukrainians, civilians and Soldiers alike, this is a reality they share every day. For many of them, it will be the last thing they ever share.
To the American military eye, the first impression of the Ukrainian Army is that it’s more a quasi-uniformed biker gang than an army. An occasional pony tail, many beards in various stages of maturity, a variety of mixed uniforms, and footwear that ranges from combat boots to flip flops. However, this impression would be dead wrong. To an individual, these are totally committed Soldiers. Life on the front line is anything but easy, but the dedication and love of country is universal. There is an easy camaraderie, and all tasks are performed with professional efficiency. From the commanding general to the brigade and battalion commanders, to the front line troops, this is a dedicated, motivated, war hardened army.
Few reporters have been to the front lines of the Russian - Ukrainian war in the east. For very good reason. The drive from Krakow to the Donbas is a challenging 18 hour experience, through Lviv, then Kyiv, and finally far out east on the Plains where the war is raging in an artillery dual. The brigade we were with, the 68th, has some mortars, which only have a range of about 4 kilometers. The Russian artillery has a far greater range, which obviously puts the Ukrainians at a severe disadvantage.
As we approached the front lines we could hear the thunder of rolling artillery barrages 30 km away, nearly all of which is inbound Russian 122 mm, 152mm and GRAD multiple launch rockets. We passed more and more destroyed homes, farms, and businesses, and then a large crop that was still smoking from the fire that ruined it. The Russian army apparently destroys that which it cannot steal. Several stray dogs roam the streets of the partially destroyed, evacuated village the 68th now occupies. Man’s best friend was left behind as the families fled the approaching Russian army. One can only imagine the poignancy of these farewells. However, the dogs have been adopted by the Ukrainian Army, and are doing quite well.
The Russians have been firing 50,000-100,000 artillery rounds per day from 2,000 guns. The Ukrainians killed and wounded every day staggers the imagination.
We met with Colonel Oleksii, the 68th Brigade Commander. The unit can do little else but take the inbound artillery rounds all day and night, for the past three months. They have only small arms and the aforementioned mortar with a 4 Km range. Despite these obvious disadvantages, the Ukrainians find ways to stalemate the Russians. We were given full access to anywhere or anyone in the brigade. Everyone we asked, regardless of rank or job title, said they need more artillery, right now. We expected this. What we didn’t expect was the request for armored vehicles to evacuate wounded. Currently a wounded Soldier needs to be carried out by stretcher, as none of their wheeled vehicles can negotiate the soft ground. This litter method of evacuation takes up to 45 minutes, seriously eroding the Golden Hour for treatment. The unit took several casualties from indirect fire while we were there, one critical.
Ukraine requested 300 M777 155mm Howitzers. The United States has sent 128 Howitzers, all of which are being utilized elsewhere on the front. Ukraine requested 100 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). The US has sent 16. These are ordered from the presidential draw down authority. They are used U.S. Army weapons out of our Army’s excess stockpile, which means they can ship as soon as the President signs the approval.
The Ukrainian artillery men pick up quickly on any type of weapon or ammo and put them to good use immediately. We were invited to a battalion Tactical Operations Center (TOC) to observe several offensive operations and observed several direct hits with secondary explosions. The weapons used on the attack we will not disclose due to operational security. Drone footage confirmed several Russian casualties. We were invited on a mission as unarmed observers and witnessed a very successful Ukrainian attack on Russians. Drone footage later confirmed direct hits on the Russians from that mission and we reviewed the footage in the TOC immediately after the operation.
The M777 Howitzers with precision guided munitions are working exactly as advertised. The M142 HIMARS are making a big difference on the battlefield, hitting command and control and weapons depots deep into Russian rear echelons within Ukraine. The universal assessment here is that the war would quickly change to the Ukrainian’s advantage were the US to ship the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). The ability to precisely target Russian command and control nodes and logistical hubs would indeed change the ground situation overnight.
The Ukrainians are profoundly grateful to the US for the assistance sent to date, and stress the need for more as soon as possible. In an environment where casualties are experienced daily, this attitude is easy to understand.
Colonel Lee Van Arsdale is a 1974 West Point graduate, served 25 years total in the Army, 11 years in Delta force. Lee was CEO of Triple Canopy, the largest security company operating in Iraq with 6,000 employees. He was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart from combat in Somalia.
Dan Rice is President of Thayer Leadership at West Point, a 1988 West Point graduate, and co-author “West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage”. Dan was awarded the Purple Heart from combat in Iraq. He is an unpaid Special Advisor to the Ukraine Commander of the Armed Forces General Valeriy and is registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent of Ukraine under FARA.