Editor’s note: Jeffrey Owens is a Jeffersonville native, a 1995 graduate of Miami Trace High School and 2000 graduate of Ohio University. As a lifelong history buff, Owens published “Victory In Europe; A People’s History of the Second World War”, a more than 700-page analysis of World War II in Europe in 2015. Since 2015, Owens has hosted more than a dozen educational symposiums on a variety of military history topics at the Grove City Library. He is a resident of New Holland.
“HIMARS O’clock Theatre” strikes occupied Ukraine every evening after dark as guided rockets launched a mere 90 seconds before rain down on Russian ammunition dumps and command posts. The corresponding explosions from Russia’s ammunition stockpiles going up in fire and smoke far outmatches any July 4 fireworks celebrations, as the detonating Russian warehouses continue to cook off in fantastic fashion for days on end. At the initial flash, video cameras temporarily lose focus as they struggle to adjust to the radiance. U.S. satellites in orbit thousands of miles above detect the heat outputs from the detonations, and thermal mapping done from space result in the contested Russian-Ukrainian border appearing to be on fire.
U.S. provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) hold the potential of turning the tide of Russia’s war on Ukraine by evening the odds of the ammunition disparity. Originally developed in the late 1990s as an improvement on existing Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) the HIMARS can fire up to six rockets and its launch system is mounted on a U.S. Army M1140 truck frame. Sixty Ukrainian officers and NCOs were rotated into NATO countries in early June for three intensive weeks of training on the HIMARS. The Ukrainians deeply impressed their instructors as they took no coffee or lunch breaks and powered through their training day after day, determined to get themselves back into the war.
Among many modern upgrades to the HIMARS is that their rockets are GPS guided, and each of the six can be individually targeted. The M31A1 rockets provided by the U.S. have a range of up to 45 miles, a 200-pound warhead, and a margin of error in accuracy of roughly one meter. This stands in stark contrast to the Russian counterpart MLRS with a targeting confidence of a half mile, and is only useful for leveling entire cities, as the Russians prefer to do. The HIMARS additionally have the capacity to launch a single ATACMS rocket with a range of 150 miles, but those have not yet arrived in Ukraine.
An earlier analysis discussed the ammunition disparity. Russian massed fires were out gunning Ukrainian forces 10 to 1 in the Donbas, resulting in 700 Ukrainian casualties per day throughout most of June. This discrepancy is aggressively being flattened by HIMARS as they weave through Ukrainian highways at upwards of 50 miles an hour while operating at or near 40 miles from the front line. Multiple uploaded smartphone videos have revealed HIMARS stopping mid-street with disembarking soldiers blocking traffic to either side for a few moments. Rockets are launched and the truck rolls on. So confident was Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov in the effect of the HIMARS, that during the first press conference about their arrival in Ukraine on June 23 he advocated that this “…summer will be hot for Russian occupiers. And the last one for some of them.”
The Ukrainians almost exclusively employ the HIMARS at night. Low budget Russian drones have minimal efficiency after dark and counter-battery radars can’t fix the location of the launches until the trucks have already disappeared down the road. Since HIMARS do take time to reload, the Ukrainians have resolved this issue by sending out forward logistical units who sprinkle stockpiles of guided rockets throughout the countryside. After launching, the HIMARS immediately press forward to the next concealed reload site, where their rocket firepower is replenished for the next attack. The Russians are left defenseless against the HIMARS, as their air raid sirens don’t even sound until the rockets have already impacted.
From June 28 to July 6, a minimum of 11 Russian ammunition depots were destroyed, most concentrated in Donetsk Oblast, with a few exploding in the Kherson, Mykolaiv and Kharkiv vicinities, respectively. Since July 6 upwards of another 20 Russian stockpiles have gone up with spectacular showmanship; to Putin’s dismay and Zelensky’s pleasure.
Incredibly poor Russian logistics is responsible for a considerable amount of these losses. The ammunition depots were built in obvious locations right along major rail lines. Nor were they concealed, as the Russians arrogantly believed that Ukraine did not possess the weapons to target them. All were in occupied Ukraine which has a heavy partisan and sympathetic civilian presence, each of whom has access to a mobile app designed for tracking and reporting Russian troop movements.
The tens of thousands of rounds stored in these warehouses were all hand unloaded from decades old Soviet era trucks. Instead of being palletized allotting for some separation, each round was stacked interlinked with one another spanning the entire distance of the depot. This has allowed for cascading explosions from a single incoming rocket to take out significantly more stockpiles of rounds than would have otherwise been possible.
At around 3 a.m. on July 3 rockets struck a large Russian ammunition depot and and military base in the occupied city of Melitopol in Zaphorizia Oblast. So unexpected was the attack, as Melitopol is slightly beyond the anticipated range of HIMARS rockets, that not only did the ammunition blow sky high, but also local hospitals became filled with Russian military casualties from the blasts. Exiled Ukrainian mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, who was even initially arrested and held in captivity at the onset of the Russian invasion, remains in close contact with many hundreds of civilians. He reported after the attack that all surrounding hospitals were closed to the public and that all available blood banks were depleted.
West of Zaphorizia lies Kherson Oblast, where Ukrainian counter offensives remain ongoing. The principal city of Kherson is located on the west bank of the Dnieper River and the occupying Russian forces there are a primary target of Ukrainian artillery and rocket fire. The Ukrainian Southern Operational Command confirmed that between July 11 and 12 multiple major Russian ammunition depots were destroyed east of Kherson at Nova Khakovka and Charivna, respectively.
On July 10, the Ukrainian Man Intelligence Directorate (GRU) confirmed that rocket strikes on the Russian military bases in Kherson and nearby Tavriss’k killed most of the command of the 20th Guards Motorized Infantry Division. This included colonels Aleksei Gorobets and Sergey Kens, and lieutenant Colonel Alexander Gordeev, along with the commander of the 22nd Army Corps, Major General Artem Nasbulin. Social media users in occupied surrounding villages such as Terpinnya, Myrne and Semenivka reported some 25 explosions during those nights. Although many were likely describing the same detonations but from different perspectives, the sheer number of reports are representative of the reversal of fates that many Russian soldiers are feeling.
“Our army is led by a bunch of untrained morons,” wrote the blogger “Yanina” who is embedded with the Russian army. “Military Informant,” another blogger, described the targeting of ammunition warehouses as “…not just a reason to panic, this is a reason to radically reconsider the entire approach to current hostilities.” Blogger Igor Girkin, who goes by his real name and is an indicted war criminal in Ukraine, openly asked “How to fight them (HIMARS)… given that in August Ukraine will received 300-500km long-range missiles allowing strikes into the rear?” Yanina further cautioned of an upcoming “shell hunger” in the next offensive resulting from the destruction of the ammunition.
Each of these bloggers are ultra-nationalists and began the war inundating their readership consisting of hundreds of thousands with fantastic stories of Russian heroism and Ukrainian cowardice. However, since May each have grown considerably more critical of the Russian military leadership and of the handling of the war by the Russian government. Most advocate for general mobilization and forced conscription as the current “special military operation” simply is nowhere close to sufficient to defeat Ukraine. Additionally, they call for even more strikes against civilian targets to break the will of the Ukrainian population to resist.
A vast majority of Russian casualties in the war have not been ethnically “Russian”, but rather have been men contracted out of hundreds of remote villages throughout Siberia or forcibly conscripted into service from occupied territories that Russia illegally holds. As a result, even though upwards of 30,000 “Russian” soldiers have been killed, this has affected relatively few Russian families. A vast majority of these bodies remain either unclaimed on Ukrainian held territory, dumped in mass graves in Russian occupied Ukraine, or processed through mobile crematoriums, with little or no notices going to their families. Among concerns of the Putin government of moving to general conscription and mobilization, is that such actions would disproportionately affect ethnic Russians and potentially undermine his support base.
Running out of excuses as to why the Russian military has done so poorly against the Ukrainian Army, the Kremlin announced in mid- July that its troops were facing mutant soldiers in Ukraine. After allegedly performing blood tests on captured or killed Ukrainian soldiers, Konstantinos Kosachev and Irina Yarovaya, vice-speakers of the Duma, detailed how Russian scientists discovered that Ukrainian soldiers had been subjected to “secret experiments” in labs funded by the United States, which turned them into “the most cruel monsters.” Although such stories may be a delight in comic books, this unsubstantiated and ridiculous tale immediately became a laughing stock among Western audiences. Multiple Twitter users have encouraged Ukraine to take it as a complement that the Russians have likened their troops to some sort of superhuman freaks.
Meanwhile, the evil of Russia’s invasion and its willingness to continually and intentionally kill Ukrainian civilians goes on without reprieve. Tragic examples unfortunately abound going back to the beginning of Russia’s full scale invasion on Feb. 24. Or, as Ukrainians define it, the beginning of Russia’s genocide on the Ukrainian people. In Mariupol there was the bombing of a maternity ward of a hospital along with a movie theatre clearly labeled as housing children. Then came the missile strike on April 8 on a train station in Krematorsk. At the time it was packed with civilians attempting to evacuate the Donbas, with at least 50 killed. On June 27 a shopping mall in Kremenchuk was hit by a Russian missile in broad daylight as people shopped and killed more than 20. Throughout the first 10 days of July, multiple residential towers and high rise apartment buildings were struck at night, as people slept, killing at least 70.
Far from the front lines is the city of Vannytsia in central Ukraine, which lies on the Southern Bug River, and is the principal city of Vannytsia Oblast. Relatively untouched by war, its population has been able to mostly go about its daily lives.
This was certainly the case on the morning of July 14 as the daily hustle and bustle of city life went on as usual. Victoria Rekuta and her 7-year-old son awaited a doctor appointment at a downtown medical center. Andrii Artymovych decided to sleep in before beginning his work day. Iryna Dmytrieva and her 4-year-old daughter Liza, who had Down’s Syndrome, made their way down the sidewalk to Liza’s speech therapy appointment.
Having documented scores of hours of her daughter Liza’s life on Instagram, the morning of July 14 was no different. Iryna uploaded a joyful video of Liza, dawning a denim jacket with colorful flowers, smiling at the camera while pushing her own stroller down the sidewalk. Just minutes after Iryna completed her video upload however, disaster struck. More than 300 miles away in the Black Sea, a Russian Kilo-class submarine launched seven Kalibr cruise missiles, aimed right at downtown Vannytsia.
Four were shot down by Ukrainian air defenses, but three made it through. Street cameras captured the impact as the concussion from the explosions and corresponding massive dust clouds knocked passerbyers off their bicycles and sent pedestrians ducking for cover. Among the first photographs of the tragedy to surface was that of Liza’a lifeless body lying on the sidewalk beneath the very stroller that she had been recorded pushing just minutes before. Her mother was hospitalized in critical condition and only learned of her daughter’s death while recovering under medical care.
Victoria and her son were both killed while awaiting the doctors appointment at the medical center. Andrii was blown out of his bed, surrounded by shattered glass, and barely evaded major injury. As of July 22, the death toll from the Vannytsia attack is 26, five of whom remain unidentified due to the severity of their injuries. Fifty-four remain in the hospital with total casualties at 204.
With each passing attack, more ludicrous lies come out of Moscow, rivaling even the “mutant soldier” chronicle, either justifying or even denying the atrocities. Some explanations accuse the Ukrainians of bombing themselves. Both the shopping mall and train station were “empty” and the thousands of pictures and videos documenting the carnage were “fake.” The maternity ward was “storing military equipment” while one of the bombed apartment complexes “housed” Ukrainian troops and no civilians were harmed. Vannytsia, according to the Kremlin, was hosting a meeting between Ukrainian and Western military leaders discussing the further delivery of arms. What was destroyed, however, was a medical building, a cultural center and an office, without a single Ukrainian or western military casualty.
Olga Rudenko, the editor of the Kyiv Independent newspaper, has stated that one of Putin’s most common forms of trickery is “twisting narratives and calling things not what they are.” Among the jobs of a journalist therefore is to “open your eyes” and “to not fall for it.” She was even openly critical of the New York Times for running the front page story on Feb. 24 covering Putin’s “special military operation,” when they should have called it what it was, a declaration of war.
The so-called “separatists’ movement” in Eastern Ukraine is another example of Putin’s deceit. Although this is what began the Russo-Ukraine conflict in 2014, the separatists’ movement never actually existed. Along with the illegal seizure of Crimea in 2014 came an invasion by Russian backed militants into the eastern most regions of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. Local residents were rounded up and put through “filtration” where sympathetic Russian speakers were sorted from patriotic Ukrainians. Thousands of Ukrainians were deported while thousands of Russians were imported, forcibly changing the region’s demographics. These Russian settlers repopulated emptied towns and filled the ranks of an army. Thus was born the “separatists” supported, nurtured and eventually declared independent by Putin, who never existed.
The current behavior of the Kremlin is no different, especially considering that the entire justification for Russia’s full scale invasion has been a similar web of lies. First Putin was stopping the Ukrainian “genocide” of Russian speakers. Then he was “de-Nazifying” Ukraine via regime change as well as defending Russia from NATO threats and provocations by invading Ukraine. Now he is “liberating” Ukraine, vis-à-vis murder, violence and destruction.
In reality, every Ukrainian has known since Feb. 24 that this was an existential fight literally for the existence of their nation. Barely any Ukrainians even feigned interest when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently stated that Russia’s war aims now lay beyond the Donbas, as every Ukrainian already knew that. There simply is no space in the Kremlin’s world view for an independent Ukraine, and Ukrainians universally understand that there are only two outcomes to this war — either an obliterated and subjugated Ukraine, or a defeated Russia. There is no third option. Arming Ukraine to the teeth and supporting them for as long as the Ukrainians are willing to fight, is quite literally defending democracy not just now, but is preserving it for the future. And that right there is a straightforward narrative, calling it as it is, that Olga Rudenko might even be proud of.