Украинский артиллерийский расчет обстрелял из гаубицы М777 российские позиции возле Покровска в Донецкой области Украины в воскресенье, 22 мая 2022 г. (Айвор Прикетт/The New York Times)

Украинский артиллерийский расчет обстрелял из гаубицы М777 российские позиции возле Покровска в Донецкой области Украины в воскресенье, 22 мая 2022 г. (Айвор Прикетт/The New York Times)  Camouflaged in a heap of branches cut from nearby trees, the weapon that Ukraine hopes will make a critical difference in its war with Russia is all but invisible from more than a few feet away.

Soon, a single round shoots out with a boom and a howling, metallic shriek as it sails toward Russian positions.

It is the American-made M777 howitzer. It shoots farther, moves faster and is hidden more easily, and it’s what the Ukrainian military has been waiting for.

Three months into the war in Ukraine, the first M777s — the most lethal weapons the West has provided so far — are now deployed in combat in Ukraine’s east. Their arrival has buoyed Ukraine’s hopes of achieving artillery superiority at least in some front-line areas, a key step toward military victories in a war now fought mostly on flat, open steppe at long ranges.

The American howitzers are chunky machines of steel and titanium swathed in hydraulic hoses and perched on four braces that fold up and down. They have already fired hundreds of rounds since arriving around May 8, destroying armored vehicles and killing Russian soldiers, Ukrainian commanders say.

“This weapon brings us closer to victory,” Col. Roman Kachur, commander of the 55th Artillery Brigade, whose unit was the first unit to deploy the weapon, said in an interview. Mixing confidence with an implicit plea for more weapons, he added, “With every modern weapon, every precise weapon, we get closer to victory.”

How close remains unclear, Western military analysts say. The arrival of the new weapons is no guarantee of success, as the Russians continue to engage in fierce fighting in the eastern Donbas region. Much depends on numbers.

“Artillery is very much the business of quantity,” Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia, said in a telephone interview. “The Russians are one of the largest artillery armies you can face.”

The United States said weeks ago that it would provide the howitzers, but their use in combat has so far been mostly hinted at in online videos posted, mostly anonymously, by soldiers. On Sunday, the military provided The New York Times a tour of a gun line in eastern Ukraine, the first independent confirmation by international media that the guns are in use.

Military analysts say the full effect won’t be felt for at least another two weeks, because Ukraine has yet to train enough soldiers to fire all 90 such howitzers pledged by the United States and other allies. Only about a dozen guns are now at the front.

Arming Ukraine with more powerful weapons is a politically sensitive issue. The United States, France, Slovakia and other Western nations have been rushing in artillery and support systems — such as drones, counter-battery radar and armored vehicles for towing guns — even as Russia accuses the West of fighting a proxy war in Ukraine, and threatens unspecified consequences if weapons shipments continue.

Disagreements over how aggressively to confront Russia have cropped up in the Western coalition. France, Italy and Germany have suggested that Ukraine use the leverage of more powerful weapons to push for a cease-fire that might lead to a negotiated withdrawal of Russian forces.

Ukrainian officials have pushed back. They insist that momentum is on their side and that talks should come only after battlefield wins and recapturing territory — once an almost inconceivable idea that became more tenable after Ukraine’s military inflicted multiple setbacks on Russia even before the arrival of Western heavy weaponry.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an interview on Ukrainian television over the weekend, said a diplomatic solution would come only after additional military victories for the country, along with an influx of weapons. The Ukrainian military has repelled Russian troops from Kyiv, the capital, and from positions near the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, but is under intense pressure now in a more limited battle for control of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

“It’s like an automobile, not a gas-powered or electric but a hybrid,” he said of ending the war with a mix of military gains and talks. “And that is how war is: complicated.”

“Victory will be bloody,” Zelenskyy said.

In any case, diplomatic talks halted about a week ago, both sides said, throwing the outcome back to the battlefields. And not all has gone Ukraine’s way. Russian forces are now close to surrounding the city of Sievierodonetsk, threatening an encirclement of Ukrainian troops.

“I’m surprised people believe Ukrainian forces can absorb this level of losses and then be ready to go on the offensive right afterward,” said Kofman, the analyst.

Still, the new, longer-ranged Western artillery is the most powerful and destructive of the many types now being provided by NATO countries. They fire 3 miles farther than the most common artillery system used by the Russian army in the Ukraine war, the Msta-S self-propelled howitzer — and 10 miles farther if shooting a precision, GPS-guided projectile.

On the open plains of the east, a long drive over potholed roads and dirt tracks ends with jeeps pivoting quickly into a tree line.

Secrecy is paramount in the cat-and-mouse artillery duels that have defined the war in recent weeks. Soldiers waste no time piling fresh-cut branches onto the vehicles, as camouflage against enemy drones.

In the artillery duels, soldiers value not just range but the ability to quickly hide and move guns and supporting vehicles.

Since their deployment two weeks ago, the dozen or so howitzers operating in two artillery batteries had by Sunday fired 1,876 rounds, according to Ukrainian officers.

With a mix of airburst, anti-personnel fragmentation rounds and other types of projectiles, the Ukrainian gunners have destroyed at least three Russian armored vehicles and, by Kachur’s estimate, killed at least several dozen Russian soldiers.

At the firing line in the trees, empty ammunition boxes and spent cartridges were scattered amid foxholes. Kalashnikov rifles leaned against tree trunks.

The officers didn’t say what they were targeting.

The purpose of the guns will be to grind down Russian positions and military infrastructure, such as ammunition depots and command posts, he said. Ukrainian soldiers say the howitzers will also save civilian lives by striking Russian artillery firing on their towns.

The types of Western artillery flowing into Ukraine now have several advantages over Soviet legacy systems, Ukrainian artillery officers said. Among the most important is their compatibility with NATO caliber shells, easing fears that Ukraine might soon run out of Soviet-standard ammunition now made mostly in Russia.

In addition to the weapons the United States is sending, the French have promised Caesar truck-mounted howitzers, which are capable of quickly driving away after firing in a maneuver known as “shoot and scoot.” Slovakia has also pledged howitzers.

But the American M777, known as the triple seven, is likely to have the greatest effect for the quantity of guns provided, providing accurate, long-range fire when sufficient crews are trained to use them, military analysts say.

The bottleneck is training. The United States has so far trained about 200 Ukrainian soldiers in six-day courses at bases in Germany. The Ukrainian military divided this group roughly in half, sending some to the front and others to train more Ukrainians. Training soldiers for all 90 guns — the amount that are scheduled to arrive — could take another several weeks, said Mykhailo Zhirokhov, author of a book on artillery in Ukraine’s war with Russian-backed separatists, “Gods of Hybrid War.’’

Smaller numbers of the computer-controlled, self-propelled Caesar guns from France will also help, Zhirokhov said, but learning to use them takes months. “Even the French think they are too complicated,” he said.

After the soldiers fired the M777, the gun was horizontal again, its barrel covered in camouflaging branches. “Move faster!” an officer yelled. The crew then ran, in case the Russians had fixed their location.

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