On a small clearing, deep in a field in Ukraine where yellow and white wildflowers sprout from the hard, dry earth, a behemoth weapon of war roars to life.
The Gepard anti-aircraft tank being used by a three-man crew working as part of Ukraine’s air defence squad is one of the 34 air defence units donated as of June 15, as outlined in German government documents, along with 55,000 rounds of ammunition.
Germany decommissioned the Gepards more than a decade ago, but the anti-aircraft system is still effective against attack helicopters, fighter jets, missiles and drones with its twin 35-mm cannons capable of firing 1,100 rounds per minute.
And while the word Gepard means “cheetah” in German, the Ukrainian crew calls it their “dragon.”
“It is loud and big and it can destroy everything in its path,” said Roman, the 28-year-old commander whom Global News has agreed to identify only by his first name as part of an access agreement to the three-man crew working as part of Ukraine’s air defence.
Global News is also not identifying the location of the crew.
Roman walked the cameras around his Gepard, explaining where the links of ammunition are fed, pointing out where the gunner sits, describing the operation of the barrels, detailing the radar system, and showing us his seat in the turret. He and his crew trained on the Gepard together in Germany, and the squad’s interceptions are marked on the side of their unit.
At the time of Global’s visit, the crew had downed four drones and two missiles.
“The German equipment works, and works very well, except for the fact that it is 1973, it performs its combat functions by 100 per cent,” said a man Global News is identifying only as Alex, speaking through a translator.
“So far, nothing has flown past us, not a single rocket, not a single mortar. They have shot down everything.”
Roman says more countries should feel confident providing Ukraine with defensive weapons because they are competent and learn quickly. He understands English and speaks a little, and he chose to say a few words in English to make his point about what he wants to see from allied nations.
“More ammo, more weapons.”
On Feb. 14, Germany’s defence minister Boris Pistorius announced before the start of a NATO gathering in Brussels that his country signed an agreement with Rheinmetall, a domestic arms manufacturer, to restart production of ammunition for the Gepard.
“We will quickly start our own production of Gepard ammunition at Rheinmetall. I am very happy we have been able to guarantee the delivery of this important part of air defence,” Pistorius said.
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Germany had also been seeking approval from Switzerland to export Swiss-made ammunition to Ukraine to ensure the country had the needed ammunition for the Gepards in order to defend its airspace.
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The Swiss Council of States — the country’s upper parliamentary body — in early June approved the re-export of war materials but approvals are also needed from the lower parliamentary body, and it previously rejected the idea.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed Swiss lawmakers on June 15 and acknowledged the debate around the re-export of war materials.
If approved, he said Switzerland would be helping to save Ukrainian lives from what he called Russia’s “ongoing, open, full-scale genocidal war.”
Since Feb. 24, 2022, there have been air raid sirens and attacks daily.
While the risk is highest in the south and east, nowhere in Ukraine is safe.
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In May, Ukrainian officials reported 21 days of aerial attacks on the capital. Those attacks have included both missile and drone strikes that come in waves, including some of the largest clusters of attacks on Kyiv since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.
It means the country’s air defence system and those who operate it are part of a life-saving team — and the Gepards are just one type of weapon used as part of Ukraine’s air defence.
Roman said that when he and his team get called and rush out to their “dragon,” there is no stress because they know their job and they’re motivated even as the war stretches on.
“It is a feeling, a short-term feeling of inspiration that we are doing the right job and secondly a feeling of a small victory that will lead us to a full victory,” Roman said.
For Alex, he said he keeps focused on his mission “to protect my family and my country.”
His mom and dad are also fighting in the war.
“I worry and they worry. We try to call every day, if possible,” said Alex, who was a bartender before Russia’s full-scale invasion began last year.
He says when Ukraine wins the war and the Russians leave their territory, he already knows the drink he’ll fix himself.
“I’ll have a Long Island iced tea.”
© 2023 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.
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