Two low-flying Ukrainian fighter jets and army ambulances meet us, as we drive east on our way to a meeting point. We are going to take a look at the armoured howitzers delivered to Ukraine by the Netherlands and Germany – a journey full of obstacles.
We are endlessly bumping after old green trucks with supplies and fuel. They‘re heading in the same direction as us. Plumes of smoke are visible in the distance. The front is not far away. Many buildings show war damage. But that dates back to the fighting in 2014, when the battle for the Donbas began.
Then come the fresh craters. Somewhere in the Donbas is the meeting point, a dusty cross in an almost deserted village. An elderly soldier steps towards us. “Tribute to the heroes”, says on his uniform where Dutch soldiers normally wear a name plate. Soldiers only give first names here, commanders only code names.
To our driver, the press officer hands over a small piece of paper with GPS coordinates. That is the point where we will meet the commander of an artillery unit fighting with the Dutch and German armoured howitzers.
In the video you can see how, slalming past barricades and burning wrecks, we get to our destination:
The establishment of this encounter has had the necessary feet in the earth. The Dutch Ministry of Defence was unable to help. “There is no track and trace on the howitzers. We gave them to Ukraine, they are not coming back. That’s why we don‘t follow them. It’s also highly sensitive information,” says a defense spokesman. But our local fixer manages to get the Ukrainian army to see the guns.
“Don‘t mention a location anywhere”
Just after passing a brightly burning off-road vehicle, we hit a forest road. That’s where we meet Commander Delta. We drive a few kilometers further, along forest paths and roads that are lined with boarded up farmhouses. A single villager stares at us suspiciously. And then suddenly, on a narrow overgrown forest path, we see one of the eighteen armoured howitzers that the Netherlands and Germany have supplied.
We‘re not stopping there. Our visit could possibly reveal the location of the heavy weapons. “Don’t mention a location anywhere,” is the order of the Ukrainian army. “The Russians don‘t know where they are. When they get a clue, they search for them mercilessly.”
The press officer kindly asks to put our phones on airplane mode. Furthermore, he is extremely relaxed. No strict requirements, as is often the case in armies. Put on helmets and shard vests? We need to know that for ourselves.
Slowingly hot and jet black
We end up driving into a garage of an abandoned agricultural company. And we have to stay inside, out of sight of possible Russian drones scouring the battlefield.
There is such an immense howitzer, including crew. It just drove in, because the exhaust grilles are red-hot and jet black with soot.
We don’t get details about the operation. We are not allowed to interview the commander – well-groomed beard, friendly smile – even though he speaks English.
However, we can speak to the soldiers. They climb up and down the armor and hang in the engine. First class soldier Mikolaj, who has been in the army since 2015, cleans the air filters. He says that the cannon has been in operation for a month and that he was trained in Germany. Whether it is effective? “Our infantry is satisfied.” And he‘s afraid, because Mikolaj also knows that the Russians are hunting this advanced artillery. He would rather not say anything about his family situation. Meanwhile, the booms of the other howitzers in the area echo.
What is your next assignment, I ask. “Victory,” he replies with indignation in his gaze. And no, those eighteen howitzers are not enough to make a difference on the battlefield.
‘Ukraine too weak for attack, Russia not strong enough‘
This is also confirmed by Oleg Zhdanov, a former member of the Ukrainian general staff. “At a thousand kilometers front, 260 modern Western guns are too few, far too few.” But the weapons are effective, according to him.
“Apart from the Donbas, we have broken the attack power of the Russian army everywhere. It has now become a war of theorem. We are too weak to attack and the Russians are not strong enough to attack.”
The pace at which the new weapons are being delivered by the west is of great concern to Zhdanov. “The Russians are now reeling and restocking. But they shouldn’t get a breather. It all depends on how quickly we get additional weapons. It is now a race against the clock. Whoever wins wins this war.”