In the positional war in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas, where enemy trenches are often only a hundred meters away from each other, snipers have a target-rich environment and play a critical tactical role. As elsewhere, snipers in the Donbas war proved to be an effective force multiplier on the battlefield, able to precisely strike long-range enemy targets, conduct indispensable reconnaissance of enemy movements and positions, as well as demoralize enemy troops.
Ukrainian military casualties from sniper attacks have been on the rise for months. According to estimates, about a third of Ukrainian soldiers fall to enemy sniper fire. Ukrainian military intelligence and volunteers have been tracing the presence of both Russian professional snipers and their proxies (Tyzhden.ua, July 25, 2019). The latter are trained in Russian military camps to defend the separatist forward line and play a propaganda role to deflect attention from the presence of Russian professional snipers in the rear (Milnavigator, July 21, 2019).
Russian snipers take shots under the cover of heavy indirect fire, luring Ukrainians with a hail of mortars, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank systems to reveal their positions (Facebook.com/pressjfo.news, December 22, 2019). And when the hissing of mortars and artillery subsides, snipers line up their targets. In a few cases, the Russian snipers even used locals as human shields to cover their positions (TSN, January 31, 2020).
Ukrainian commanders face a tough choice: fire back and alert an enemy sniper; or show restraint and encourage the enemy to come closer. For shelter, Ukrainians dig deeper trenches and buttress their fortifications. For repelling enemy snipers, Ukraine trains and deploys its counter-sniper teams (Spetskor, April 9, 2019).
At the onset of the war, unlike Russia’s battle-tested snipers, Ukraine’s Armed Forces had no clear distinction between an infantry sniper or marksman and barely had any professional snipers that met North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) standards. The designated marksmen were mainly found in Ukraine’s special forces units providing short-range support with precision fire. Ukraine had to build their sniper program from scratch, bringing in foreign instructors to teach state-of-the-art methods (Gazeta.ua, August 3, 2019). Ukrainian snipers in schools like Desna now undergo rigorous selection and training which greatly improved their ability to strike long-range targets. Today Ukrainian snipers can successfully operate at 2,500 meters.
Despite progress made, Ukrainian snipers are underfunded. Ukrainian sniper instructors admit that they can barely afford 1,000 bullets to train each sniper. For comparison, it takes a sniper from the United States about 10,000 rounds to master the tradecraft (Donbas.Realii, December 2, 2019). Overall, a US sniper with a two-year contract costs the United States Army about $1,000,000. By contrast, the equipment of a Ukrainian sniper can cost about 1,000,000 hryvnias ($40,000)—an astronomical figure for a country with a struggling economy. Much of what snipers need, such as night vision devices, camouflage, rangefinders, ammunition, thermal sights, and silencers is provided by volunteers or by the snipers themselves. Still, capability gaps remain. For instance, to gauge distances, Ukrainians often must rely on their maps, which can be off by 10–20 meters (Donbas.Realii, December 17, 2019).
Throughout the war, Russian snipers have held the advantage, while Ukraine has had to be creative to catch up. Although both began fighting with the same Soviet sniper rifle, the Dragunov (SVD-63), the Russian SVDs had new barrels and PSO-3 scopes and fired new high-quality rounds. Ukrainians, on the other hand, wielded Soviet-era SVDs with worn-out barrels and old scopes and were using up the last low-quality SVD sniper rounds and then switching to machine gun rounds. To address these shortcomings, Ukrainian volunteers helped upgrade the SVDs with new silencers, sights, and bipods, but the old barrels still impair accuracy (Donbas.Realii, November 25, 2019).
As the war progressed, the dynamics of the battlefield demanded new long-range effective weapons. The SVD is unsuitable as it is designed for suppressive fire at up to 800 meters. Both sides continue to test new rifles and rounds seeking an edge. Although the SVD is still the main weapon used by local proxies at the forward line of defense, Russian professional snipers at the middle and rear lines use bolt-action sniper rifles like the ORSIS T-5000 and the large caliber OSV and ASVK that fire three times farther than the SVD (Donbas.Realii, December 25, 2017).
To be effective against Russian rifles requires more powerful weapons than the old SVD. Ukrainian forces are abandoning their Soviet legacy weapons in favor of Western and Ukrainian designs. Volunteers and private companies procured hundreds of carbine hunting rifles and NATO round rifles. The UR-10, manufactured by a Ukrainian company, Zbroyar, has a range of 1,200 meters and is designed to replace the SVD (Expres, December 7, 2019). Its higher-quality optics and .308 caliber rounds improve precision, while a newer PBS silencer better camouflages the fire (Ukrainian military TV, May 27, 2019). The long-range Savage, Barrett, and Canadian PGW LRT-3 are also now used by Ukrainian snipers. However, despite their long-range and hard-hitting capabilities, experts say that in the trench war, Ukrainian snipers need smaller caliber rifles like UR-10, VPR-308, Galatz, or McMillan. Given their lighter weight and usability, they are more effective and allow better mobility (Depo.ua, August 14, 2018).
While replacing the SVD will still take a couple of years, the ammunition to counter Russian powerful bolt-action rifles is needed today. With some volunteer supplies of NATO’s commercial version .308 Winchester and .338 Lapua Magnum rounds, the ammunition is short of what is needed for bolt-action rifles in training and in the field (Donbas.Realii, December 2, 2019).
Ukrainian snipers have made significant advances in training and new weapons procurement. Adding sniper teams to each battalion, not just special forces, delivered an immediate force multiplier. Yet, Ukraine may still take another ten years to fully realize its sniper potential. Poor funding, army bureaucracy, and ammunition shortages preclude Ukrainian snipers from reaching their potential today. With proper resources, Ukrainian snipers will be more capable of hindering Russian advancement and forcing Moscow to pay a higher price for its aggression.