Since 2015, when the fighting in eastern Ukraine became a stalemate, both sides have used a lot of artillery. Until recently both Russians and Ukrainians used many of the same artillery weapons, most of Cold War (Soviet era) designs. Until 2022, air power was not a factor in Donbas because the Russia insisted on portraying the Ukrainian separatists in Donbas as a local group fighting for independence from Ukraine. That was never true and there were more and more Russian troops there, pretending to be locals. Russia could not employ air power because the separatists never had any and Russian forces were technically not involved. The separatists could claim to have some captured air defense weapons, so the Ukrainian did not use their aircraft near the combat zone. That was the ceasefire line where Ukrainian troops and volunteers halted the Russian advance.
Another reason for not using aircraft near or over occupied Donbas was an incident in July 2014 when a Malaysian B-777 airliner was shot down by the Ukrainian separatists using a Russian Buk M2 (SA-17) self-propelled anti-aircraft system that could hit aircraft at altitudes up to 25,000 meters (82,000 feet). The B-777 and the 298 people aboard crashed in separatist territory and Russia claimed that the Ukrainians fired the missile. There was an international uproar and Russia was forced to allow Dutch (the aircraft was flying from Netherlands) accident investigators to recover the bodies and examine the wreckage and recover some aircraft components. That included fragments of the missile that brought down the airliner that serial numbers on some of the missile components showed it was a version of the Buk-M2 that only Russia had. Witnesses later revealed that the Russian Buk M2 had recently crossed the border and turned over to separatists who were actually Russian troops trained to use it. The Bukm2 operators thought they were firing at a Ukrainian military transport. The Russian BukM2 was driven back to Russia after the airliner was shot down. Other Russian anti-aircraft systems had shot down Ukrainian transports operating near the front line but never spotted one flying over separatist territory like the Malaysian airliner. By the end of 2014 the Ukrainians stopped operating transports or combat aircraft near the front line. Russia continued to station BukM2 vehicles on the border between Russia and separatist occupied Donbas even though there was nothing to shoot at. International airlines no longer flew anywhere near Donbas. The only aircraft still used were UAVs, and Ukraine had more of those and used them to find targets for Ukrainian artillery. From 2015 to 2022 there were a series of ceasefires in effect. These were regularly violated by the separatists or Russian artillery on the border that pretended it was firing from inside Donbas. To counter this Ukraine stationed a lot of artillery near the ceasefire line so that it could respond to violations of the ceasefire.
All this demonstrated to the Ukrainians that the Russians could not be trusted and that if the war was resumed, it was better to prepare for that. That meant that by 2022 the Ukrainians had upgraded and expanded their air force and air defense systems. Also upgraded and expanded was the artillery available for use against Russian forces if there was another war. There was, and it began February 24th with the Russians using a plan that sought to avoid a protracted battle against Ukrainian artillery and air power. This daring plan involved a rapid advance on the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and another northern city Kharkiv. There were smaller attacks in Donbas and in southern Ukrainian using forces based in Crimea. The Russians misjudged the determination of the Ukrainians and the main attack from the north was halted and forced to retreat. The Russians suffered heavy losses. The Donbas attack also failed. After two months of this Russia changed their strategy and concentrated on using a lot of artillery to destroy towns and cities they could not capture. The Russian attitude seemed to be; if we can’t have it, neither can you. This new strategy was partially successful but then the Ukrainians demonstrated that they had carried out major upgrades to their own artillery and how it was used.
In 2014 Russia and Ukraine both had a lot of artillery systems, most of them of Cold War vintage. Russia was also dismayed to discover that the upgrades to Ukrainian air-defense systems and combat aircraft prevented Russian from gaining air superiority and freely using their larger air force against Ukrainian artillery.
Until 2022 Russia made frequent use of the Cold War era Tochka-U (also known as SS-21) ballistic missile and Luna-M (an unguided rocket also known as FROG-7). SS-21 has a range of 120 kilometers while unguided FROG-7 is fired in large numbers at targets up to 70 kilometers away. Another Russian favorite was the 300mm BM-30, which was introduced in the late 1980s and seen as a copy of the American MLRS system that entered service in 1982. Both systems fired unguided long range (70 kilometers) rockets, The Americans added guidance systems to their MLRS rockets in 2005 and Russia did the same by 2018, calling the guided, heavy multiple rocket launcher Tornado-S.
Tornado-S began production in 2012 and only a few were available as problems with the first version were worked out. By 2017 a reliable Tornado-S was in mass production and many of the “guided missiles” used by Russian forces in Ukraine have been Tornado-S.
For bombarding cities, the Russians prefer the smaller unguided MLRS rockets that both sides possess. For Russia the unguided rockets have the advantage of not containing any Western components. The fire control system in the launcher vehicle might but similar components are designed and manufactured in China. These are easy to smuggle into Russia. The unguided rockets come in several calibers, including the 220mm BM-27 that is fired from a sixteen-tube launcher out to 35 kilometers; warheads weigh between 90 and 100 kg while the complete rockets weigh 280 kg.
The common unguided rocket is the 122mm BM-21 that showed up in the 1960s. Also using a truck mounted launcher setup that contains 40 122mm launch tubes, capable of firing a variety of rockets. That means 122mm rocket range varies from 12 to 45 kilometers. Longer range is achieved by reducing warhead weight. Both sides use a lot of 122mm unguided rockets. Since 2015 Russia has been manufacturing the highly automated Tornado-G launcher with an improved fire control system and better able to avoid Ukrainian counterbattery fire. The Ukrainians are very fast and accurate with their counterbattery fire and meant Russian artillery that could not quickly change position after firing a salvo of shells or rockets was vulnerable. As Ukraine receives more self-propelled artillery systems equipped to work efficiently with a distant counterfire radar system that quickly spots incoming shells or rockets and calculates where the fire is coming from. Ukraine has developed very quick counterbattery fire techniques, often using individual self-propelled guns that can halt, fire several shells at a location provided by counterfire radar and be moving again quickly enough to avoid any Russian counterbattery fire.
Russia still uses a lot of tube artillery, most of it 152mm systems. Users prefer armored self-propelled 152mm guns because these are more resistant to damage or destruction by Ukrainian counterbattery fire. Russia has several types of these well protected guns. The most powerful one is the 2S7, which uses a T-80 tank chassis and carries a 203mm (8 inch) gun. These are Cold War era systems that were retired and in storage. After 2014 2S7 vehicles were reactivated and put to work. The 203mm gun has a range of 55 kilometers for a 100 kg rocket-assisted shell. These vehicles can fire shells weighing up to 100 kg as far as 55 kilometers with rocket assisted projectiles. Both sides used a lot of towed 122mm and 152mm artillery as well as 120mm mortars.
During the first two months of the 2022 invasion the Ukrainians made heavy use of artillery because they had better communications and fire control systems than the Russians, who ignored these developments until Russian armored vehicles and supply vehicles suffered heavy losses After six weeks of this heavy personnel and vehicle losses the Russians retreated from most of northern Ukraine and changed their tactics to deal with the Ukrainian’ novel and devastating fire-control systemss.
The new and still current plan is to use lots of unguided artillery shells and rockets to bombard urban areas, especially civilians. This massed firepower and the dwindling supply of guided weapons, especially the long-range ones, were used against military targets in the east (Donbas) and along the Ukrainian Black Sea coast. This lowered Russian casualties while increasing those of the Ukrainians. It also means slower advances as well as increasingly effective counter-attacks by Ukrainian forces. The Russian attacks on civilians led to more Ukrainians in Russian controlled areas turning to partisan warfare. This sort of thing is an ancient Ukrainian tradition that makes civilians even more of a target. That is less of an obstacle when the Russians are already killing lots of Ukrainian civilians. The Russian response against civilians believed supporting local partisans are so similar to German methods used against partisans throughout occupied Europe that the Russians are taking a major hit in their propaganda campaign to the Russian people that Russian troops are fighting Nazi Ukrainians. The partisans and their civilian supporters still have their cellphones to covertly record Russian war-crimes. The Russians realized this and made it a capital crime for Ukrainian civilians to possess a cellphone that can operate with Ukrainian cellphone networks. That doesn’t stop civilians from making videos of these atrocities, it just takes a little longer for the videos to reach the outside world, including Russia, where a growing number of civilians are openly protesting the war and more are attacking the war effort, usually by setting fires to recruiting stations and storage areas for military fuel and ammunition needed by Russian forces in Ukraine. Russia is a major oil producer and still has large stocks of elderly (Cold War era) shells and unguided rockets that are often dangerous to use. The chemicals used in shells and rockets become unstable and unreliable as it gets older. This causes some casualties for Russian artillerymen but not so many make their job as dangerous as troops in the combat units or transportation units carrying these fuel and ammo supplies to front line troops. Some of the Russian troops handing this unstable ammo notice when shells or rockets show signs of dangerous degradation and abandon it rather than risk using it. That’s what more and more Russians want to do with the Russian misadventures in Ukraine.