David Axe


Nov 22, 2022

When Ukrainian brigades launched twin counteroffensives in eastern and southern Ukraine back in late August and early September, most Russian regiments either had no choice but to retreat, or wisely chose to retreat in order to preserve their surviving forces.

There were weird exceptions. For reasons that defy military logic, Russian troops in a few eastern sectors not only stayed in place—they attacked.

These isolated Russian assaults—call them “counter-counterattacks”—so far have not resulted in meaningful territorial gains for the Russians. They have however resulted in heavy casualties- especially for the Russian side. “The Ukrainians are fighting a very, very successful mobile defense,” U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters on Wednesday.

Just one corps of the Ukrainian army is doing most of the killing – the artillery. In the eastern town of Bakhmut, where pro-Russian separatists and Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group have been conducting perhaps the biggest of the isolated counter-counterattacks, Russian and allied forces are under daily bombardment by one of Ukraine’s best artillery formations – the 40th Artillery Brigade.

The brigade is a new formation. The Ukrainian army stood up the 40th Artillery Brigade back in 2015 as part of its wider mobilization in response to the Russian occupation of Crimea and subsequent attack on eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. When Russia widened its war on Ukraine in February, the 40th Artillery Brigade was in the eastern city of Kharkiv, just 25 miles from the Russian border.

At that time, the brigade possessed only old Soviet artillery, including 2A36 and 2A65 152-millimeter towed howitzers and MT-12 100-millimeter anti-tank guns. After February, the brigade added American-made M777 155-millimeter towed howitzers—reportedly 21 of them—plus quadcopters for reconnaissance.

The M777 can fire Excalibur GPS-guided shells to a distance of 25 miles. The combination of drones, M777s and Excaliburs is a deadly one. The 40th helped to defend Kharkiv through the summer and, in the fall, joined the eastern counteroffensive. In September, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky awarded the brigade a citation for “courage and bravery.”

The 40th Artillery Brigade’s gunners, working in conjunction with spotters, gunners and mortarmen from the 53rd Mechanized Brigade, have scored some impressive hits on separatist and Wagner troops in Bakhmut.

As a Ukrainian drone watched from overhead on or before Thursday, the brigades’ guns zeroed in on Wagner fighters cowering in a culvert running underneath a road in or around the ruined town. A precise hit on one side of the culvert pulverized a Wagner fighter.

To be clear, both sides have brought their big guns to bear in Bakhmut. The town and its surroundings for months have rattled under non-stop shelling. The few people left from the town’s 71,000 pre-war population spend much of their time in basements, cellars and dugouts in order to escape the lethal bombardment.

The Ukrainian and Russian troops battling for control of Bakhmut don’t have the option of staying underground. And even when they seek cover in trenches, bunkers and culverts, the gunners root around for them, flying small drones over the infantry’s hideouts, then dialing in the cannons.

Both sides are getting shellacked. But the Ukrainian gunners have prevented the separatists and Wagner from gaining much, if any, ground. “In the vicinity of Bakhmut [there] remains heavy fighting as Russia continues to conduct offensive operations, with Ukraine continuing to hold the line,” an unnamed U.S. Defense Department official told reporters last week.

For Kyiv, holding that line is enough. Everywhere but Bakhmut and a few other small eastern settlements, Ukrainian troops are advancing. Russian troops, meanwhile, are getting killed by the hundreds, or thousands, throwing themselves into Ukrainian shellfire in places that don’t matter much to the overall war effort.