Defenders of Bakhmut in Ukraine fear losing support amidst ongoing waras Volodymyr and his men faced a significant change in their capabilities over the past year. Once able to fire all 40 barrels of their BM-21 Grad rocket launcher simultaneously, they are now only able to afford firing a few barrels at a time towards Russian targets.
Volodymyr, a member of the 17th Tank Battalion, describes their dwindling ammunition supply as the primary reason for this limitation. Despite this constraint, their unit continues to be called upon for fire support as Ukrainian forces struggle to defend the outskirts of Bakhmut, an eastern Ukrainian city that Russia has been trying to seize for months.
The Russians are gradually closing in on their objective of capturing the city, but the price of their advance has been steep. As we wait concealed among a line of trees, Volodymyr receives a call to direct his rocket launcher towards a Russian mortar position located approximately 15 kilometers away.
Volodymyr's men wastes no time in removing the branches that conceal their vehicle, and they set off towards an empty field approximately one kilometer away. Once there, they quickly determine the range and adjust the elevation of the rocket barrels towards their intended target. Meanwhile, a Ukrainian drone hovers above to assess their accuracy.
After launching their first rocket, the team is informed by the drone that it missed the target by approximately 50 meters. Undeterred, they adjust the elevation and launch two more rockets, quickly returning to the safety of the trees for cover. This time, the team receives confirmation that they have hit their intended target.
Despite their success, Volodymyr remains frustrated that they cannot do more to support their comrades who are putting their lives on the line. He explains that Ukraine has already depleted its own stocks of Grad ammunition and is now relying on rockets sourced from other countries, including the Czech Republic, Romania, and Pakistan.
However, Volodymyr voices his disappointment with the quality of rockets originating from Pakistan, describing them as inferior. He believes that their reliance on external supplies is a major hindrance to their ability to provide effective support to Ukrainian forces in the area. Preparations are now underway for a major offensive, but Ukraine is still expending vast resources just to maintain its current position.
Some of the Ukrainian Grad missile supplies coming through the bush
Despite the arrival of modern weapons, including tanks and armored vehicles, Ukraine remains heavily reliant on its older, Soviet-era arsenal. One of its most prized possessions is the Russian-made Buk air defense system, which has the ability to target aircraft, drones, and missiles. We were granted rare access to see one of these systems further along the front line, concealed in a wooded area.
This highly sophisticated weaponry has played a crucial role in preventing Russia from gaining control of the skies. Josef, the Buk commander, reveals that it is a prime target for Russia. As such, extreme measures have been taken to protect it. The long vehicle, with its radar dome, is buried in a deep trench and covered with camouflage netting. Two grey missiles are visible on top, although it typically carries four.
Earlier this month, a collection of classified US documents - containing maps, charts, and photos - was leaked online, revealing detailed intelligence on the war in Ukraine. When asked about the reported shortage of Buk missiles, Josef disputes the claims, stating that they have enough missiles, but are struggling to maintain the system due to a lack of spare parts.
Regarding the leaked US intelligence reports, Josef questions whether they actually revealed any secrets, as Russia has supposedly known about Ukraine's capabilities for years. He sees no reason to be angry with the Americans for providing information that was already known.
While the timing and location of Ukraine's expected offensive remains unknown to Russia, it will be a critical effort to take back territory and alleviate pressure along the 800-mile (1,300 km) front. Both sides are currently struggling to arm and equip new units, and provide adequate food to those on the front lines.
The 80th Brigade of Ukrainian troops near Bakhmut is using Western-supplied weapons to defend against Russia's advances. Serhiy and his team are operating a British-made L119 light artillery gun, but they are also rationing their rounds, firing only an average of 30 a day.
Serhiy emphasizes that ammunition is crucial, saying, "We've got enough people for the moment, but we need ammunition. Ammunition is the most important." When asked if this year is make or break for Ukraine, Serhiy replies, "If we retake our land by going on the offensive this year, then we'll win. But, if we fail, we don't have the resources for the war to go on for another five to ten years."
Volodymyr, the commander of the Grad, is even more direct, saying, "The country is exhausted, the economy too." He worries that if Ukraine does not achieve a decisive victory this year, Western support may wane, adding, "We are also worried our Western allies are getting tired of helping us."