EASTERN UKRAINE — The premier weapon in Ukraine’s arsenal drove down a dirt road not marked on any maps, along a sunflower field, before its military minders parked it between trees — the branches shielding it from the Russian drones that are no doubt hunting for it.
“We actually have six,” said this system’s chief, whose call sign is Kuzya. “We just haven’t had a chance to add the other three yet.”
After public frustration over Western delays in transferring promised heavy weaponry, specifically multiple-launch rocket systems such as the HIMARS, the Ukrainians have quickly put their new hardware to work more than four months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Kuzya and his comrades said their targets so far have focused on Russian command posts — warehouses where enemy officers and weaponry were stationed.
Ukrainian officials say the new Western materiel is already making a difference on the battlefield — a testament to the importance of continued security assistance and the painful cost of slow-moving deliveries as the Russian military slowly expands its control in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Artillery strikes from French self-propelled howitzers stationed in the port city of Odessa reportedly forced the Russians to withdraw Thursday from the strategically important Snake Island in the Black Sea.
The HIMARS is the most advanced U.S.-provided system and has the longest range of Ukraine’s ground weapons, nearly 50 miles, enabling its forces to precisely strike Russian military targets without endangering its own civilians in occupied territories. Ukraine had been asking for the weapons for about two months before the transfer was approved — after Ukraine assured the Biden administration that it will not use them to launch cross-border attacks into Russia.
The Biden administration promised to send Ukraine four more HIMARS as part of an additional $450 million in aid announced last week. All four were prepositioned in Europe, and training on those systems has already begun with the Ukrainian troops who will use them, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
“What we used before was a lot more worrisome,” said the four-person team’s gunner, whose role is to input the target’s coordinates. His call sign is Moroz, which translates to “frost.”
The HIMARS brings more peace of mind, the soldiers said. With their old equipment, they avoided rocket trajectories that passed through any population settlements, limiting them to only shooting through fields and forests, to avoid potentially harming civilians, Moroz said.
“I don’t have any doubts about what we’ll hit,” Moroz said. “I know the rocket will hit its target because it’s navigated by satellite.”
The system this unit used before was the Soviet-era Uragan, a self-propelled multiple-rocket launcher that had a maximum range of about 20 miles. It also had a margin of error of about half a mile, and was targeted in coordination with a drone or a reconnaissance team. The HIMARS is guided by satellite and deviates from its target coordinates by at most one yard, the soldiers said.
They asked to be identified only by their call signs as a security measure. With the systems considered a top-priority target for the Russians, the team members’ families don’t even know they work with them. They have to keep the HIMARS on the move constantly because staying in one place too long risks its location being uncovered.
The launcher holds six rockets and is attached to a dark green truck frame. Operations are mostly conducted at night — the soldiers standing at a distance and counting off before shouting “fire!” There’s a bright flash of light as each rocket takes off. Then they’re ready to move within two minutes — and speed is imperative to keeping the HIMARS safe because the Russians can quickly pinpoint the source of the shooting and fire back. The mobility is impressive — for a hulking vehicle, it can move at up to 60 miles per hour, they said.
“We were also surprised that such a high-precision weapon could shoot so quietly,” Kuzya said.
The unit eagerly awaited the arrival of the HIMARS for one month. Then they finally got firsthand experience at a secret location outside of Ukraine with American instructors for about two weeks. Rather than let the Americans simply demonstrate, Ukrainian troops asked them to explain what to do and let the students try to adjust from there.
“They were like, ‘Oh [expletive],’ ” he said with a grin, wearing a bulletproof vest emblazoned with a skull patch and “Welcome to hell.”
The computer system is entirely in English, so at the time of training, interpreters explained what each button means — all documented in a notebook the soldiers regularly consult. But Google Translate is still needed on occasion.
Kuzya said it would be nice to have 50 HIMARS so that Ukraine could deploy four in each direction of a vast front that spans nearly its entire eastern border with Russia. “Sputnik,” the unit’s commander, said it would have been better to have had the equipment sooner — before Moscow’s forces took control of most of the country’s Luhansk region.
“I think it took too long to get them here,” he said. “Had they been here much earlier, I think we would’ve already been done with this war.”
Anastasia Vlasova contributed to this report.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.