An interview with colonel Oleh Faydyuk, Commander of the 45th Separate Artillery Brigade. He talks about the soldiers training, the beginning of the war, the Kharkiv offensive, the needs of the UA army, and recent battles in Bakhmut and Soledar.
Original article in Ukrainian on:
Author: Olha Kyrylenko
Translation by @VolodyaTretyak (Twitter)
(Interviewer): Mr. Oleh, on February 24, there were 52 people in your brigade, which at that time had the status of a reserve brigade. Can you remember what the first days of the invasion were like for you?
(Oleh): I did not believe this invasion would happen until the last moment. According to the rules of engagement, the ratio of forces and means was insufficient to occupy a country like ours. And when the invasion began, I received a directive to deploy the brigade to wartime states. Everything was so intense that I can’t even remember what I was thinking. I think the most important thing was the selection of people.
I wanted to take the most motivated people. Even if a soldier or officer did not have a relevant military specialty, but he really wanted to learn something new, was more or less intellectually developed, and had no alcoholism or drug addiction, I took him.
Now you have guys sitting behind you [nodding to the soldiers working during the interview] who had no previous connection to artillery. And now they have already trained so much that I have time to give you an interview while they control the artillery fire.
(I): How many people work in the combat staff, at least?
(O): I can’t give you exact numbers, but let’s say up to 2,500.
(I): How did the selection process look like: people came to the military enlistment office, which “sifted” them, and then you selected people for your team?
(O): Yes. People were brought from the military enlistment offices – 5, 10, and 30 people at a time. I tried to talk to almost everyone. I lined them up in a single line and asked them if they were ready, not ready, or if they were not ready, they could leave. They asked, “What will happen to us?” I said, “nothing”. Tell the military commissariat that you were not taken, and go to the TRO [Territorial Defense]. Because some were afraid that cases would be opened against them and so on.
The guys came in jeans and sneakers, but they did not come in shorts because it was cold [smiles]. So we changed these people ourselves and put them on the payroll – the deputy for the rear immediately did a good job, and I am very grateful to him.
He was a career officer, retired, spent 3 or 4 months in retirement, and returned to service again. He had phones and contacts.”
(I): How long did it take you to turn a man in sneakers and jeans, who was living his civilian life a few hours ago, into an artilleryman?
(O): We had very limited time, first of all. Secondly, the most motivated people came to us on the first day, which had a lot to do with it. So in 10-14 days, we were ready to participate in combat operations. We learned very quickly.
The fact that we had many IT people join us definitely played a big role. So it took them 2-4 days to explain the work specifics at the artillery reconnaissance and fire control points.
(I): And if we talk about the people who work directly on the howitzers, was two weeks enough for them too?
(O): Yes. It all depends on the teachers. Our classes were personally taught by the commander of the 59th Division, Lieutenant Colonel Churbanov, who is a very good methodologist. He also had two smart battery commanders who participated in the fighting from 2014 to 2016, during the first mobilization. They came back to us by phone.
And thanks to this, it is very easy to train a gunner and a gun commander in two weeks. In 2006, when I was still a battery commander and we went to the training ground for a month, and a half a year, no one was particularly engaged in combat training. The soldiers went on patrols, cleaned the territory, whitewashed… Sometimes they fired.
Nowadays, I, or any career officer who have been in the military for at least six months, can train a gunner in two weeks from an average citizen. No matter who he was in civilian life – an IT specialist, a janitor, a manager.Another example is the time it takes for our military to master Western weapons. To be more precise, it is correct to say not “Western” but “weapons provided by partners”. For the French or Americans, it takes six months to train on the M777. Ours takes 2-3 weeks.
Zaporizhzhia direction, weapons, and lack of ammunition
(I): After you recruited people, the brigade split up in different directions: Kyiv region, Kryvyi Rih, Zaporizhzhia?
(O): Yes, we did. One divizion went to Kyiv region, the second to Kharkiv region, the third to Kryvyi Rih, and the fourth to Zaporizhzhia. The anti-tank divizion was initially near Kyiv, it went on duty on March 4, and then went to Kharkiv.
(I): Much has been said about the Kyiv and Kharkiv campaigns. But much less has been said about stopping the offensive on Kryvyi Rih and Zaporizhzhia. What exactly did you do in these areas, at what point did you “meet” the occupiers, and how did the fighting develop there in general?
(O): I will tell you about Zaporizhzhia because I was there personally. On the third day after arriving in Zaporizhzhia, we began to perform a combat mission to defeat the enemy. On March 12, we fired our first shot from a gun.
(I): What kind of gun?
(O): 2A65, it’s called Msta-B.
(I): So you work with towed guns?
(O): Yes, we don’t have self-propelled ones. The specificity of our artillery brigade is that we have towed guns with a long range.
The first people we encountered [in the Zaporizhzhia direction] were the so-called Kadyrov’s units in Gulyaypol. It is incorrect to call them Chechens because Chechens themselves do not consider them as such.
Then we began to support the 128th, 81st Brigades, and 110th Brigade of the TRO in that area, i.e. we worked in their area of responsibility. The divizion [18 howitzers] was divided into batteries [6 howitzers], and each battery was responsible for its own area. The only thing we had trouble with was the distance between the batteries.
(I): Was it too big?
(O): Yes. According to the rules of engagement, as described in military literature, the distance between batteries should be no more than five kilometers, ten kilometers at most. But we managed 20, 40, 50, 60 kilometers.
But thanks to this, the enemy could not inflict fire on us and destroy everyone in one shot. He did not even use missiles against us. Who would launch a missile for 100 thousand (or whatever the Iskander costs) at one gun? So there were only artillery duels – who would catch whom at the maximum range.
(I): Was your task to suppress the Kadyrovites advancing from the Crimea with fire and prevent them from advancing north to Zaporizhzhia?
(O): Not so. When we arrived there, the permanent combat units – because we are part of the reserve corps – had already restrained the enemy’s advance from the south, from Crimea. We approached when the line was more or less stabilized. Yes, they had periodic attempts to go on the offensive, but the infantry, air defense, and we all stopped them.
(I): Why, in contrast to Kharkiv, Donetsk, Kherson and Mykolaiv regions, did the front in Zaporizhzhia region hardly move since March and April?
(O): There are two reasons. First, I assume that the enemy leadership did not consider this area to be the main one. Because at that time they had already seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, a place where they could do whatever they wanted and no one would do anything to them. We are not going to fire on a nuclear power plant – we have not yet overcome the consequences of 1986.
Secondly, our infantry is well entrenched in the ground, and every attempt by the enemy to move forward has backfired or, more precisely, has left them with scattered guts in the landings.
And there is one more thing – the terrain- evident even from the name “Hulyaypole” itself [Hulyay – walk, pole – filed]. There are large fields and plantations with 3-4 trees – everything is visible, and it is very difficult to approach without being noticed. In Soledar, the distance between our fighters and the enemy was 100-200 meters, which is very close. In Zaporizhzhia, it was never less than a kilometer.
(I): In the Zaporizhzhia region, you worked entirely in the field – is it easier to contain the enemy there?
(O): Yes, to identify and stop them. The enemy very rarely reached our infantry.
(I): Did you have to take part in urban battles after February 24?
(O): Guns will never enter a city – it’s suicide. But of course, we had to help or support the infantry during the actions in populated areas.
(I): By the way, what do your anti-tankers work with?
(O): “Rapiras, Stugnas, Corsarys, and later we received Javelins. Among the smaller ones, we have Milans [light anti-tank missile systems of French-German production with a range of up to 2 kilometers].
(I): Is the use of Soviet Rapira guns still relevant in modern warfare?
(O): Not really. They are being partially withdrawn. Even the Milan is hard to pull, and the Rapira is even harder. It requires a tractor, and at least five people to maintain it, and that’s a goal.
We are currently undergoing some changes, and not only in our team. We are at the stage of receiving new weapons, and new weapons mean changes in the staff structure. After all, first, the weapon appears, and then a staff is made for a specific weapon.
(I): What is the ratio of Western to Ukrainian and Soviet weapons in your brigade?
(O): As of now, it is 50/50. I hope that after Ramstein, another divizion will be rearmed.
(I): What Western weapons do you have? The M777, for example, is publicly known.
(O): We also have TRF – French guns. It is a predecessor to Caesar, but it is a trailer mounted weapon, very similar to FH70, which everyone has probably seen.
(I): Can you use high-precision Excalibur shells on the TRF?
(O): I can’t answer that… Theoretically, of course, yes – the caliber is the same.
(I): How do you assess the role of Western weapons in this war? Would Ukraine be able to defend itself or counterattack without Western weapons?
(O): The point here is not that Western weapons are available in principle, but in logistics. Why did we start using Western weapons more?
Not only because it is more accurate but because, in addition to its advantages, it also has disadvantages. The main reason is the lack of 122 and 152 millimeters of Soviet-style ammunition. Since the world has more stocks of 155mm, we switched to it. And now the percentage of 155s being used is ten times higher than 152s.
Just like in the First World War, logistics worked in the Second World War. Whoever has a larger supply of resources wins.
(I): What weapons does Ukraine lack to win?
(O): We definitely need more guns.
(I): What kind of guns?
(O): It doesn’t matter, we will master any weapon and use it to destroy the enemy.
We have no personal wishes because we understand the situation in the world. No one was prepared for such large-scale fighting in Europe. The Americans are also replenishing their stockpiles and have additionally launched Stingers factories.
The situation with ammunition is the same: no one has ever done such a large-scale stockpiling. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone thought that there would be no more war.
The Germans, if you look at open sources, had about 300 of these Leopards. Of these, 60 were in working order, so you could get in, turn the key and drive off. Two battalions, roughly speaking.
(I): Mr. Oleh, but when warehouses were burning all over Ukraine before 2014 and especially after 2014 – Svatove, Balakliya, Kalynivka – including those with 122- and 152-caliber shells, did you have any doubts that it could be a deliberate sabotage?
(O): I can only speculate here, and I don’t really want to do that.
I can say that bad things that happen are not always the result of deliberate actions. For example, if an ammunition depot is not properly equipped, no funds are given for firefighting equipment, and the personnel or guards are paid little or are paid with delays… Then there is no need to “smoke in the wrong places” as the Katsaps are trolled.
I don’t rule out the possibility that it was deliberate arson, but we can’t dismiss this version as negligence.
About counteroffensive in Kharkiv region
(I): Did you take part in the Kharkiv counteroffensive?
(O): Yes, one of our divizions did.
(I): How did it go? Where exactly did you help the infantry, and what tasks did you perform?
(O): Near Izyum, the 62nd Division. And the 87th Anti-Tank Division did a lot of work.
Unfortunately, Sergeant Serhiy Mishchenko, a man who personally destroyed 14 confirmed tanks and 27 armored vehicles – BMPs and APCs – was killed there. We submitted his documents for the title of Hero of Ukraine, but we did not have time to award it during his lifetime.
(I): What did he work with?
(O): He worked with Javelin. He was a god, a real god. He had six children, he could have avoided going to war altogether. And he was also a born talent – he figured out how to act on his own. I was already trying to get him to teach others rather than perform tasks himself. But he was always rushing forward.
I told him: “Look, even under the best of circumstances, you can’t do all the work yourself. Train 5-10-15 people, even if they take out one tank or APC each, it will be more in total.” And he started teaching a little bit.
And then it so happened that the Russians no longer had armored vehicles on the front line-they realized that Western precision anti-tank artillery was destroying them-and our guys had to go into the “gray” zone. And so Mishchenko went there and died.
(I): Did you manage to take any trophy weapons during the counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region? The 93rd managed to take away a Giatsint self-propelled artillery system from the Kharkiv region.
(O): Trophies rarely reach the artillery because our infantry brothers are ahead. And where a Greek has passed, a Jew has nothing to do [smiles].
I don’t have any trophy weapons in my brigade at the moment.
(I): Almost six months have passed since the beginning of the Kharkiv operation. Can you open the cards a little bit and tell us when you learned about this operation?
Because it was a great surprise for journalists both the pace of this operation and the fact that it was kept secret until the very end.
(O): I’ll tell you more – even I didn’t know! This has, let’s say, a right to life. The more information you have, the less likely you are to succeed. Or vice versa, like the Americans, did in Iraq: if you don’t do this and that, we will start fighting on such a date. So you can either keep it secret or do the opposite of what you say.
In our case, everyone knew as much as they had to know. And, as you can see, it worked.
(I): So, did you read about Balakleya’s dismissal in the news?
(O): Yes, I’m serious. The firing units do not really see where they are working. We don’t move with the infantry. At best, if a drone takes off, we can see what’s going on online.
Right now, the drone is searching for the enemy [nodding to the screen in the room], he is not walking as proudly as he used to. The prisoners used to say: “You can walk around calmly. Ukrainian artillery is crooked.” Well, you see, they don’t walk calmly anymore.
Eighty percent of what Madyar [Robert Brovdi, an aerial reconnaissance man who runs the Magyar telegram channel] has been reporting in his telegrams, especially over the past two weeks, is our work. This is all our artillery. We’ve told him many times: sign it somehow that it’s us because we won’t hit, and you won’t have anything to post [laughs].
Interaction between units and the role of aerial reconnaissance
(I): Have you established direct cooperation with Madyar’s unit?
(O): Yes, we met, discussed what we need and what suits him. The main thing during combat operations by any air defense, electronic warfare, or especially infantry and artillery unit is a meeting where you discuss cooperation. Because if it is not there…
A pilot is flying, sees a target, and without interaction, it may turn out to be our infantry. Or vice versa – we think it’s ours, but the enemy has already found it.
Or maybe the infantry wants to move forward, and we need to shift fire from one target to another so that they follow our gap. If there is no interaction, you will continue to “destroy”, but the debris will fly to your own.
It’s the same with aerial reconnaissance: the first projectile may not always hit the target, it may fall from the side, so you need to zoom out, calculate the place of impact, adjust and work on. And this is all about communication.
(I): Is it possible to operate artillery today without adjusting aerial reconnaissance?
(O): Theoretically, yes, but not desirable. They work without adjustments in exceptional cases. Even according to NATO standards, according to the charter of the artillery of the US field army, there is no firing at a target that is not observed. The bourgeois know how to count money, and they calculated that this is very expensive.
(I): Instead, the Russians throw “squares”?
(O): It used to be like that, but now they don’t work that way anymore. They either correct with Orlan or use Lancets. That is, they hit more precisely.
(I): By the way, do you use decoys – models of equipment?
(O): Yes, we do. We make some models ourselves, and some are brought to us by volunteers. They have a battery with a wire – it looks like a real gun at night. We also scatter garbage nearby to show signs of life. From time to time, people also come to fry sausages there.
(I): Does it work?
(O): Yes, it does. We don’t always see it, but sometimes the personnel drive to the places where the decoys are and say that there are gaps nearby. But we have not caught Lancet yet.
(I): But, for example, the infantry has discovered a target, reported it to you, and what happens next – what is the sequence of actions?
(O): There are several ways. First, the infantry sees something and directly contacts me via the combat control chat, gives me the approximate coordinates and asks me to deliver a fire strike. If there is no Internet, then radio stations are used, but this is a longer way.
Now almost all infantry battalions have Mavic, some have Matrice, and the super-fashionable ones even have some kind of “wings”, i.e. airplane-type drones. And that’s all they do – they stream from the drone. I don’t even have to give the coordinates, I can see where the enemy is and strike there.
(I): What is the speed of your reaction to such a message?
(O): If we saw something right now [nodding to the monitors ], it would take three to five minutes, and a shell would land there.
The system can turn around and fire, or it may need time to move, get into a combat position, and practice the actions of the gunners – then it will take 20-30 minutes.
(I): What should be the minimum target for you to open fire on it? How many people, what type of fortification, and what kind of equipment?
(O): It all depends on the situation. You may need to open fire on three people, for example, if they are UAV operators.
There is no need to spare shells for “worms”, as Magyar calls them, because they will do more damage if left. That is, there is no “less than 10 people – we do not open fire” policy.
For example, in Soledar, the Wagner PMC developed a tactic of acting in small groups without equipment so that we would not use artillery against them. That is, 3-5 people with shovels go to “bury themselves”, and assault groups immediately join them, and so they gradually move forward. There is no classical offensive – columns, companies, platoons with equipment – in our area.
(I): Did you notice the use of such tactics in Soledar? Didn’t you see this in Kharkiv and Kherson regions?
(O): No, they have never attacked in such small groups before.
By the way, they don’t have as many shells as they did at the beginning. Not even shells, but charges. A shell is a cast-iron block, it can be from 1941 or 1943, and it will not be harmed if no one drops it or cracks it.
But the gunpowder, that is, the charge deteriorates. We lived in the same state, or to be more precise, we lived under the occupation of the Soviet Union. So knowing what kind of warehouses they have and how they store it all, I’m sure that half of them don’t have gunpowder anymore. That is why they are also saving a lot of money now.
Gunpowder is not poured into a can, it is stored in special bags, and the bags tear over time. Accordingly, the initial velocity of the projectile will not be the same. It won’t work to put all the shells like candy in one plate.
(I): And what about the quality of the charges our partners send to Ukraine?
(O): Everything is of high quality, no question. For example, we received Bulgarian 152-mm ammunition, and it is clear that it was well stored. Their approach to storage was better than ours before the war.
Bakhmut, Soledar, Syryskyi
(I): You are currently working in the Bakhmut area, north of Bakhmut. How long ago did you come here?
(O): In mid-November, on the 17th-19th.
(I): What was the operational situation like at that time? According to my observations, the situation in Soledar was more than stable until the beginning of December, thanks to the resilience of the 93rd Brigade.
(O): I can’t say that everything was held together by the 93rd.
The fact is that the Russians, as I said, changed their tactics. At first, they came in with equipment and many people, and then they started working in small groups.
Do you remember back in 2015-2017, when they used the frog-jumping tactic? Now they have started using it – they are climbing in small groups of 100-200 meters.
If they were marching in a column, I opened fire and destroyed their equipment. Half of them would be wounded, and half would run away. And it’s hard to catch three people. The only option is to find a place where they are dropped off and from where they disperse in these small groups.
The weather also played into our disadvantage. Warm winters, low cloud cover, and UAVs that can fly long distances rarely work. Speaking for myself, I rarely have situations where I can see 15-20 kilometers ahead.
That’s why it’s very difficult to track two Kamaz trucks that bring the Wagner workers to the unloading point, from which they disperse. So if the weather is good, we will work differently.
(I): Right now, as we speak, the weather is clear outside – does it work better for you?
(O): If the weather is clear, their Lancets start working – everything is interconnected. It’s the law of conservation of energy: good weather helps them and us, and bad weather hinders both. Although in bad weather, they will still be moving in groups of 3-5 people. Perhaps that is why this situation [in Soledar] has developed this way.
(I): What did the arrival of Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky to the Bakhmut direction mean?
(O): I can’t say anything about that.
(I): Did you attend his meeting with local commanders?
(I): How did you react to his arrival in Soledar? The city was already under massive attack.
(O): What was there to be surprised about? The most difficult area, the commander arrives. If I were him, I would have done the same thing to get a good look at the place, to understand it, and not just accept reports and reports from my subordinates.
After that, no one will say he is sitting there, hiding, and only sending orders here. This is a personal example of courage, he does not fear for his life.
(I): After his arrival, did your tasks in this area change in any way?
(O): It may change for the infantry, but I don’t really care whether it’s defense or offense. The only thing is that we need to make more movements in the offensive.
That is, his arrival did not affect me, the brigade, or the performance of our tasks. The machines are working and the damage is being done.
(I): In your opinion, will the Ukrainian army be able to hold the Bakhmut-Siversk road, which passes through Soledar and from which a branch goes to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk?
(O): I can’t make any predictions here, there are too many unknowns. It all depends on the weather, the availability of ammunition, and the moral and psychological state of the military. And even on such things as vaccination against covid or flu [smiles].
(I): By the way, does the news about the supply of Western weapons, such as Leopards, affect the morale of the military?
(O): Of course, they do. Everyone understands that each additional gun means at least 15 targets hit per day. This is an increase in firepower on the enemy! They are not immortal over there, either.
(I): What is the Ukrainian and Russian artillery ratio in the Bakhmut sector?
(O): As of now, it is one-to-one.
(I): The other day we climbed to the top between Chasovyi Yar and Bakhmut and watched the work of Ukrainian and Russian artillery – at times it seemed that Ukrainian artillery was even more powerful.
(O): And I can tell you why ours shoots more – the same interaction. When our infantry asks for fire, we do not refuse them. But their artillery does not help those guys much. They believe that a shell is worth more than a released prisoner.
But we shouldn’t relax here either, because it could be that they are accumulating ammunition and don’t want to spend it on supporting 5-10 people. “Women will give birth, but shells need to be boutght.”
(I): Do I understand correctly that the Ukrainian army has the forces and means to continue to hold Bakhmut?
(I): In the coming months, for example, until March, will we still hold this area?
(O): I can’t say for sure. What is the main idea there… To hold it for nothing? If there are, more favorable lines or the enemy starts to put more pressure… We don’t have “women can give more birth” rule – we value people the most.
Moreover, if it is a normally trained and motivated soldier, a key specialist, then his loss will mean failure in the direction. It doesn’t even matter what kind of support is sent there: if there is no specialist, that’s it.
Everything will depend on the situation. So far, they are not bringing in heavy equipment for an assault. I think we can work until spring.