Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak
June 6, 2022
The New York Times
KHERSON REGION, Ukraine — Since Russia invaded, NATO nations have upgraded Ukraine’s arsenal with increasingly sophisticated tools, with more promised, like the advanced multiple-launch rocket systems pledged by the United States and Britain. But training soldiers how to use the equipment has become a significant and growing obstacle — one encountered daily by Junior Sgt. Dmytro Pysanka and his crew, operating an aged antitank gun camouflaged in netting and green underbrush in southern Ukraine.
Peering through the sight attached to the gun, Sergeant Pysanka is greeted with a kaleidoscope of numbers and lines that, if read correctly, should give him the calculations needed to fire at Russian forces. However, errors are common in the chaos of battle. More than a month ago, the commanders of his frontline artillery unit secured a far more advanced tool: a high-tech, Western-supplied laser range finder to help with targeting. But there’s a hitch: Nobody knows how to use it. “It’s like being given an iPhone 13 and only being able to make phone calls,” said Sergeant Pysanka, clearly exasperated. The range finder, called a JIM LR, is like a pair of high-tech binoculars and likely part of the tranche of equipment supplied by the United States, said Sergeant Pysanka.
It may seem like a perfect choice to help make better use of the antitank gun, built in 1985. It can see targets at night and transmit their distance, compass heading and GPS coordinates. Some soldiers learned enough to operate the tool, but then rotated elsewhere in recent days, leaving the unit with an expensive paperweight. “I have been trying to learn how to use it by reading the manual in English and using Google Translate to understand it,” Sergeant Pysanka said.
On Monday, Britain promised to send Ukraine mobile multiple-rocket launchers, improving the range and accuracy of Ukrainian artillery, days after President Biden committed to sending similar weapons. Ukraine’s most advanced new arms are concentrated in the eastern Donbas region, where the fiercest fighting rages as President Vladimir V. Putin’s forces — approaching from the east, north and south — try to crush a pocket of Ukrainian-held territory. At the eastern tip of that pocket, the two sides have waged a seesaw battle for the devastated, mostly abandoned city of Sievierodonetsk.
Over the weekend, Ukrainian troops regained some ground in the city, according to Western analysts and Ukrainian officials. But on Monday, the Ukrainians were forced back again as the Russian military ramped up its already intense artillery attack, according to Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine’s administrator for the region. A day after a risky visit to troops in Lysychansk, near Sievierodonetsk, President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday gave journalists a blunt assessment of the challenge: “There are more of them. They are more powerful. But we have every chance to fight in this direction.” Ukraine’s leaders frequently call for high-end Western weapons and equipment, pinning their hopes for victory to requests for new antitank guided missiles, howitzers and satellite-guided rockets.
But atop the need for the tools of war, Ukrainian troops need to know how to use them. Without proper training, the same dilemma facing Sergeant Pysanka’s unit and their lone range finder will be pervasive on a much larger scale. Analysts say that could echo the United States’ failed approach of supplying the Afghan military with equipment that couldn’t be maintained absent massive logistical support. “Ukrainians are eager to employ Western equipment, but it requires training to maintain,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at C.N.A., a research institute in Arlington, Va. “Some things it’s not easy to rush.”
The United States and other NATO countries gave extensive training to the Ukrainian military in the years before the war, though not on some of the advanced weapons they are now sending. From 2015 to early this year, U.S. military officials say, American instructors trained more than 27,000 Ukrainian soldiers at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center near Lviv. There were more than 150 American military advisers in Ukraine when Russia invaded in February, but they were withdrawn.
Since the beginning of the war, the United States has pledged roughly $54 billion in aid for Ukraine and supplied a bevy of weapons and equipment, most recently several advanced HIMARS mobile rocket launchers, a move greeted with swift condemnation from the Kremlin. But to avoid a more direct confrontation with Russia, the Biden administration has so far declined to send military advisers back into Ukraine to help train Ukrainian forces to use new weapons systems, and has instead relied on training programs outside the country. This has put enormous pressure on Ukrainian soldiers like Sgt. Andriy Mykyta, a member of the country’s border guard who, before the war, received brief training from NATO advisers on the advanced British antitank weapons, known as NLAWs.
Now he races around frontline positions trying to educate his comrades on how to use them. In many cases, he said, Ukrainian soldiers learned how to use some weapons, including NLAWs, on their own, using online videos and practice. “But there are types of weapons that you can’t learn from intuition: surface-to-air missiles, artillery and some gear,” Sergeant Mykyta said in a telephone interview. “So we need formal courses,” he added.
Ukraine’s needs are palpable in the region where Sergeant Pysanka’s unit is dug in, just northeast of the Russian-occupied city of Kherson. The area was the site of a brief Ukrainian offensive in the past week that slowed as soon as the retreating Russians destroyed a key bridge; the Ukrainians’ lack of longer-range artillery meant they were unable to attempt a difficult river crossing in pursuit, Ukrainian military officials said.
For Sergeant Pysanka’s gun team, the only instructor available for the laser range finder is a soldier who remained behind from the last unit and had taken time to translate most of the 104-page instruction manual. But it’s still trial and error as they figure out what combination of buttons do what, while searching for ad hoc solutions to solve the lack of a mounting tripod and video monitor (both of which are advertised in the instruction manual). “If you’re working long distances while holding it by hand, sometimes it can transmit inaccurate figures,” Sergeant Pysanka said. “It is safer,” he added, “to work when the gear is stationed on the tripod facing the enemy and the operator is working with the monitor under cover.”
The JIM LR, made by the French company Safran, looks like a cross between a virtual reality headset and traditional binoculars, and can be used alongside a mapping application on a computer tablet that Ukrainian troops use to help call in artillery strikes. At around six pounds, it is far smaller than the four-and-a-half-ton, U.S.-supplied M777 155 mm howitzer that has recently made its way to the frontline in Ukraine’s east. But both pieces of equipment have intricacies that are reminders of the complications that come from supplying a military with foreign matériel.
The M777 is highly mobile and capable of firing long distances, but training has been a bottleneck in deploying the howitzers, Ukrainian officers say. At courses in Germany that lasted a week, the United States trained soldiers to fire the weapon and others to maintain it. But an oversight nearly delayed all maintenance on the guns at the hard-to-reach front lines, Ukrainian officers said. The entire M777 machine is put together on the imperial system used in the United States, meaning that using a Ukrainian metric wrench on it would be difficult, and would risk damaging the equipment. Only after sending the guns did the United States arrange for a rushed shipment of toolboxes of imperial-gauge wrenches, said Maj. Vadim Baranik, the deputy commander of a maintenance unit. But tools can be misplaced, lost or destroyed, potentially leaving guns inoperable unless someone scrounges up a U.S.-supplied wrench.
And the JIM LR, capable of displaying extremely accurate targeting data, supplies the information, known as grid coordinates, in a widely used NATO format that Sergeant Pysanka has to convert to the Soviet-era coordinate system used on the Ukrainians’ maps. Such minor speed bumps and chances for error add up, especially when under the stress of a Russian artillery barrage.
For now, Sergeant Pysanka is focused on learning the range finder. In his small slice of the war, Western-supplied weapons and equipment are limited to a small number of antitank rockets and first-aid kits. “We can’t boast the same kind of resources that there are in the east,” said Maj. Roman Kovalyov, a deputy commander of the unit that oversees Sergeant Pysanka’s gun position. “What Ukraine gets, we can only see on the TV. But we believe that sooner or later it will turn up here.”
Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, and Eric Schmitt from Washington State.
Thomas Gibbons-Neff is the Kabul bureau chief and a former Marine infantryman. @tmgneff