Ukraine recently sent one of its S-300V air-defense missile systems, which are in short supply and one of the highest-end surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) currently in its arsenal, into the Donbas.
The Ukrainian S-300V1 transporter erector launcher and radar vehicle (TELAR) was spotted June 12 in Lysychansk, in the center of an embattled salient held for weeks by Ukrainian forces against a hail of Russian artillery fire and armored assaults.
In addition, Ukraine operates the S-300P air-defense missile systems. Both systems are of roughly similar vintage, fielded by the Soviets in the late 1970s and late 1980s, but with different operational concepts in mind. The V variant, which has a tracked launcher rather than the S-300Ps 8x8 wheeled vehicle, was developed by the Soviet Union as a top-tier air defense system capable of taking down ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and aircraft in support of theater-wide ground operations. The S-300V’s TELAR transporter can be loaded with up to four surface-to-air missiles at a time and has an integrated tracking and fire control radar, all in one mobile package. The S-300P uses multiple vehicles as components of a larger system.
It is possibly loaded with 9M83 missile, which NATO calls the SA-12A Gladiator and has a maximum engagement range of about 47 miles. The system is also compatible with the 9M82, NATO designation SA-12B Giant, missiles that can hit targets out to about 60 miles. Various factors affect the operational range and accuracy of SAM systems, but if armed with either of those missiles and placed about 50 miles from the Russian border in Lysychansk, in optimal conditions the S-300V could target Russian aircraft at altitude inside its borders.
There is no readily available source for how many S-300Vs Ukraine had in service at the beginning of the war and we don't know how many have been destroyed. It is thought Ukraine's military has very few of the S-300V variants, which were apparently pulled from long-term storage after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Moving them into the area near Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, where they will likely be in range of Russian artillery, is significant. Ukraine's willingness to risk the missile systems indicates that contesting Russian airspace along the front lines remains critical for Russian forces, even as artillery is the biggest problem they are currently facing.
Air defenses aside, the battle for Severodnetsk continued to rage over the weekend, with Russia’s preponderance of artillery allowing for some territorial gains, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense.
Both sides are blowing up bridges across the Donets River — Ukrainian forces to prevent Russians from crossing the waterway and Russian troops in an attempt to trap Ukrainian forces on the eastern bank.
For that reason, “river crossing operations are likely to be amongst the most important determining factors in the course of the war,” according to the U.K. MoD’s most recent intelligence assessment.
The center of Russia’s frontline in the Donbas is now located along a 56-mile stretch of the meandering Siversky Donets River. To fully encircle Severodonetsk and close off the Ukrainian pocket there, Russian forces will have to either make “ambitious flanking actions or conduct assault river crossings,” according to the U.K. MoD.
The Russian army has had little success with river crossings — an immensely complex operation that requires precise coordination and timing — so far during the war. Russian assault forces were all but obliterated by Ukrainian artillery in two previous attempts to cross the same river. “Russia has struggled to put in place the complex coordination necessary to conduct successful, large-scale river crossings under fire, The MoD said.
It has been a few days since we updated readers on the progress of the war in Ukraine. A lot happened over the weeked, but before we get to the details, catch up on where hostilities stood on Friday with this previous post.
In a grim reflection of the siege of the Azovstal chemical plant in Mariupol, where hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians withstood weeks of unrelenting Russian bombardment, several hundred Ukrainian fighters and civilians are now trapped in the Azot chemical plant in Severodonetsk. As many as 500 civilians are thought to be sheltering in the plant’s underground facilities with a similar number of soldiers as Russia pounds the city with long-range artillery and air strikes.
Ukraine’s military is digging in and holding on under intense shelling from Russian artillery in the east. Beating back Russian forces to “end the war” is going to require far more donated weaponry than is currently on hand, according to Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Being straightforward,” Podolyak said on Twitter just two days before U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III hosts an in-person Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Ukraine needs:
Ukraine's Foreign Minister echoed the point that the nation can hold its own against a formidable enemy if given sufficient tools and weapons. "Imagine what Ukraine can do with sufficient tools," Dmytro Kuleba tweeted. "I urge partners to set a clear goal of Ukrainian victory and speed up deliveries of heavy weapons."
Political support for Ukraine’s admission to the European Union is still apparent, as EU president Ursula von der Leyen visited Kyiv over the weekend. “Good to be back in Kyiv,” she tweeted. The European Commission is expected to recommend granting Ukraine official status as an EU candidate country, Politico reports.
The amount of artillery expended daily in the Donbas regions by both sides is staggering even if reported figures are exaggerated. The Washington Post recently reported that Russia is firing 50,000 artillery rounds a day against just 5,000 to 6,000 Ukrainian rounds coming the other way, an incredible imbalance in firepower if accurate. Whatever the actual number of projectiles being lobbed across the frontlines, there is no question that artillery has come to define the ongoing fight.
Videos are circulating of Russian and Ukrainian artillery systems striking each other in the wide-ranging battle where range and accuracy could be decisive. Here is a Ukrainian M777 towed howitzer striking a Russian BM-21 Grad MLRS position near Severodonetsk.
Another video shows a Russian Uragan MLRS firing on a Ukrainian position farther west near Kramatorsk.
Both sides have readily adopted small, commercially available unmanned aerial systems (UAS) as artillery spotters. The inexpensive, easy-to-operate drones are proving effective at identifying targets and directing incoming artillery. A Russian volunteer unit was recently seen using DJI Mavic drones and ZALA tail-sitting fixed-wing drones for that very purpose.
Ukrainian soldiers have launched quadcopter drones from moving armored vehicles and are using first-person view (FPV) goggles to view the battlefield.
Small drones can also pack an outsized punch. Ukraine continues to make use of small, commercial UAS to drop munitions on Russian soldiers and vehicles with remarkable precision. Recent videos show a Ukrainian unit dropping 30mm grenades with jury-rigged stabilizing fins directly into Russian trenches.
Larger 40mm grenades dropped from a small drone are sufficient to at least damage Russian armored vehicles. The Ukrainian so-called “White Wolf” unit published a video online claiming to have destroyed 14 Russian tanks and two infantry fighting vehicles with drones either dropping bombs or directing inbound artillery fire.
Russian forces managed to down a multi-rotor drone before it could drop a KZ-6 demolition charge, a Soviet-made munition capable of damaging most armored vehicles.
More evidence of U.S.-donated Switchblade 300 loitering munitions popped up from the fighting over the weekend. Although they are deisgned to impact a target and explode, photos of the suicide drones’ carcasses published online by Russian troops show remarkably intact remains with identifiable components.
With so many small drones wreaking such havoc on the battlefield, it is no wonder that both sides are scrambling to counter them by any means necessary. Larger drones can be brought down with shoulder-fired air-defense systems — Ukrainian forces have shot down Russian Orlan-10 drones with Stinger missiles — those weapons can be too precious to waste on small quadcopters or they may not be able to lock them up at all. To deal with commercial-grade drones, Russian troops and Ukrainian forces are fielding anti-drone “guns” like the EDM4S Sky Wiper, of which Lithuanian journalist Andrius Tapinas claims to have bought 110 for $1.5 million. To be cheeky, Tapinas said the anti-drone systems have been named “Orcrist,” a fictional sword from the J.R.R. Tolkien novel “The Hobbit” also known as the “goblin cleaver.”
The Ukrainians lost one of their own Spectator-M1 reconnaissance UAVs to a similar Russian electronic warfare capability that either damaged or disrupted control of the aircraft in flight.
In a strange anecdote in the air war over Ukraine, that country’s forces came across a deployed K-36 ejection seat in the middle of a field. It is not clear which side the seat belongs to and no pilot is seen in a video of the discovery. Both sides are known to use the device in the Su-25, Su-27, and MiG-29, all of which have been shot down by both combatants since the outbreak of hostilities.
Speaking of Su-25s, videos continue to emerge of both Russian and Ukraine examples of the jets making very low attack runs over the fighting in the east and south. The Ukrainian Su-25s here can be seen dispensing flares before continuing toward their targets.
Russian forces published their own highlight reel of Su-25s flying in formation, at low altitude over Ukrainian fields and towns.
Amidst all the madness and carnage, there remain rays of light and moments of humor. In one such instance some sort of fire, belching black smoke into the sky, provided the backdrop for one Ukrainian soldier's clever photo.
When humans fight, animals and pets are invariably caught in the crossfire. They also often provide moments of calm during profound chaos, as when a photographer found this litter of puppies playing near the intense fighting around Lysychansk.
Another puppy found some solace in the trenches by cuddling with a Ukrainian soldier’s boot.
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Contact the author: Dan@thewarzone.com