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As they wait for weapons, Ukrainians hold the line with Soviet artillery

Ali Pirbudagov, 34, right, and Mykola Ostanyuk, 57, near their self-propelled gun that is older than Ali, in the Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine on June 26. (Serhiy Morgunov for The Washington Post)

ZAPORIZHZHIA REGION, Ukraine — Ali Pirbudagov’s weapons are parked under the cover of trees and camouflage nets. They’re all older than he is, dating back to a time when Ukraine and Russia fought together in the Red Army. Now, Pirbudagov has to use them against Russian troops attacking with more-modern equipment.

“This particular one is from 1987,” said the 34-year-old Pirbudagov as he rubbed the hood of a 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzer. “There are older ones. This is actually one of the ‘newer’ pieces.”

While Western countries have started sending better weapons to Ukraine, they can be slow to arrive, leaving some units, like Pirbudagov’s 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, to fight with Soviet-era leftovers. They require a lot of repair, he said, and parts that aren’t easy to find. On the other side of the front line, Pirbudagov’s enemy is often using the same kind of howitzer, but it’s 15 years newer and has a bigger gun.

The new artillery systems tend to go to artillery brigades or to higher-priority locations, such as eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, where fighting has been most intense. But the disparity between military units is also the result of Ukraine still waiting on much of the weaponry it has been promised.

The United States and Germany, for example, had as of July 1 delivered less than half of the military aid they have announced, according to data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, which has been tracking countries’ contributions and deliveries of weapons to Ukraine.

While Ukrainian officials are grateful for any security assistance — Washington alone has provided more than $8 billion since the start of the Biden administration, with billions more to come they’ve also voiced frustration with the delays during a critical juncture of the war when Moscow appears vulnerable. Richard Moore, the chief of Britain’s intelligence service, said last week that Russia is likely to “run out of steam” in the coming weeks, amid shortages of manpower and materiel.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, noted the “extreme difficulty Russian forces regularly have capturing small and relatively insignificant bits of terrain over weeks or months of fighting. These limitations will grow as Russian units continually degrade themselves during assaults on small villages.”

With Russia’s troops stretched along a vast front that spans most of Ukraine’s eastern and southern boundary, the Ukrainians have had the most success reclaiming territory along the southern axis — a counteroffensive that’s vital to improving Ukraine’s position in any future negotiations on an end to the conflict.

But Pirbudagov and other soldiers in his self-propelled artillery unit near the front line in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region said they are unable to advance with the weapons they have — the best they can do is hold their current position. Pushing the Russians back by just five miles over two months would be considered good progress.

“We really hope that very soon we are going to attack,” Pirbudagov said.

The war has become a cat-and-mouse game between artillery units. Each side uses drones for reconnaissance, which identify targets for attack. For the Ukrainians, that means keeping their weapons constantly camouflaged and moving quickly. Their main Russian targets are artillery and ammunition depots — anything that will make a dent in Moscow’s significant weapons advantage. Russia’s modern howitzers have systems that can automatically correct for terrain and weather factors, making them more accurate than Ukraine’s, which have to be adjusted manually.

Ukrainians stuck with Soviet-era artillery are also running short on ammunition, because the older howitzers use different caliber rounds that are scarcely produced outside Russia. That means Ukrainian soldiers must be more selective with their targets, while the enemy can fire indiscriminately — up to five times as much, according to the men in Pirbudagov’s unit. Enemy vehicles and infantry in a hideout, they said, are probably not worth the number of shells it would take to smoke them out into the open.

Russia targeted Ukrainian ammunition to weaken Kyiv on the battlefield

“There are days when it’s calm, the sun is shining and it’s warm,” said Victor Troshky, an artilleryman in the 128th brigade. “And sometimes we get 80 to 100 shells per hour.”

Troshky was a professor at western Ukraine’s Uzhhorod National University — he has a PhD in physical and mathematical sciences — when Russia invaded on Feb. 24. As a professor, he was exempt from military service, but went to fight anyway. When he has a stable internet connection, he still coaches his students on their studies, often jotting down an algorithm on a piece of paper, snapping a picture of it and texting it to them. His commander asked him to tutor his 12-year-old brother.

Math skills can help with artillery strategy, he said, but there are limitations that can’t be overcome. While Russia can — and often does — fire at will, the Ukrainians say they try to take greater care, both to conserve their shells and to protect civilians living under occupation. Russian forces often position themselves in populated areas as a form of cover.

“Hitting a precise target with a single shot is not that easy,” Troshky said. “A bit further to the left or to the right there could be a residential building.”

He and others in his unit occasionally study the types of newer artillery systems they could soon receive — anything that might speed up the eventual training. Exactly what they will get, and when the weapons will arrive, is anyone’s guess.

“We might get something, too,” said Mykola Bezkrovnyi, Troshky’s deputy commander. “We have what we have, but there is a huge number of similar artillery systems from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland that they can pass to us to replace ones that have been destroyed.”

The 128th brigade did get one new piece of modern equipment recently: Its members seized an enemy BMP-3 combat vehicle with less than 5,000 miles on it. They drove it to a makeshift auto shop for repairs, and plan to paint over the Russians’ trademark “Z” symbol on the front and sides. Soon, they said, it will be back on the front lines — and on their side.

Lesia Prokopenko contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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