He is the second-in-command of the 23rd Separate Brigade of the Ukrainian Army, one of the new units that Zelensky has formed to carry out the counteroffensive. Under his command, the modern guns sent by the Allied countries to the war are firing, as well as the drones that have become "the eyes of the gunners".
When he joined the army at the age of 16, he never imagined that his country's president would put in his hands the task of creating a Tactical Artillery Group, from scratch and in the middle of a war against Russia. But he says that "they have done well" and that Russian troops "are starting to flee in some places on the southern front" in the face of their advance.
The hardest thing for him was leaving the 92nd Lugansk Brigade, where he served for the last 22 years of his life. But like the rest of the Ukrainians, Colonel Roman Kuzholni is "fighting for his country" and that motivation can be read in his eyes. A look more worn than befits his age - he looks ten years older than he is - and the wear and tear of war leaves no one indifferent.
He welcomes us near Dnipro, and talks about the challenge of creating a new military corps in the middle of a war, the lessons learned in wartime, and the reasons why Ukrainians take to the battlefield, even though many of them have no military experience.
How do you build a new brigade for an army, from scratch and in the middle of a war against Russia?
It's not the same to build battalions in peacetime as in the middle of a war. I knew there were going to be a lot of difficulties, but we did well. There were many civilians with no military experience prior to the full-scale invasion, and that was the first thing I took into account. Also the experiences we have learned over the last few months, where we have seen the importance of drones in this war, and that's why I thought about integrating them into the Tactical Artillery Group from the beginning. In fact, one of the first people I spoke to was the current commander of our drone group, with whom I have been working on this integration since January.
What has been the biggest difficulty?
The most complicated thing has been to provide it with the necessary air intelligence and with well-educated intermediate ranks, because, as I said, many of them have little military experience. It is a changing, very new thing, we have had to bring together the most experienced troops with many others who had no military experience at all, who have only recently enlisted and had very different backgrounds before the invasion. In addition, we had to train against the clock.
And looking at the result now, what would you say are the strengths of the new 23 Brigade, how does it stand out from the others?
The most decisive thing about this brigade is precisely the artillery: a single artillery shot can decide a battle and put an end to it, as it did at Kharkiv. Drones are also very important now, I insist: drones have become our eyes, and the artillery is the executing arm. Moreover, it is a flexible arm, and can be adapted to each mission by deploying more or fewer guns. A tactical artillery group is normally made up of 1,000 troops, although I can't give you the exact figure for this one either, because it's a figure that is not made public in wartime.
You say that the experience of the last few months has been taken into account in the formation of the new brigades, but what exactly has been taken into account?
The war has actually been on the cards since 2014, when it became clear that the entire Ukrainian army needed to be restructured. The Russians have not done their homework, which is why they are as they are. Since 2022, the role of drones within the army has also been taken into account and work has been done to integrate them. Current needs in military performance have been taken into account.
On a strategic and military level, what are you most concerned about at the moment in the counteroffensive?
I am not allowed to worry. Currently the 23rd Separate Brigade is fighting on the front line, on the southern front in Ukraine, and has an important role in the disengagement of our territory. We are seeing that the Russians are trying to protect themselves with landmines and anti-tank mines, but once we get through those minefields, some are already starting to flee in some places. The ones that stay and fight are because they have a lot of anti-tank missiles and their helicopters can still attack us. But we fight for every metre of ground every day.
Have you been equipped with new-generation weaponry, the kind sent by allied countries in the latest aid packages?
Yes, we have weapons from the US and other countries.
Do you also have personnel trained by the armies of the various allied countries?
Also. We have 36 troops trained by the US Army in Germany, and six of them are commanders, which is important because they can now continue to pass on the knowledge to their subordinates. The difference between their training and what they had here is very big, and it is very enriching for the battalion to bring them into our ranks.
All personnel who have been trained abroad bring a lot to the battalion when they return to our ranks. There are also military personnel trained in England and Spain.
In what speciality have those from Spain been trained?
The 23 Separate Brigade personnel who have gone to Spain have been trained in the medical speciality, although I don't have many details because they are not in the artillery group that is under my direct command.
We have seen a war of positions that has lasted several months - with a great deal of attrition and many casualties - and for the moment the counter-offensive is going slowly.
That's not complicated, because many soldiers were fighting in the counteroffensive in Kharkiv, and that gave them a very high morale that is still there and that rubs off on their comrades. Besides, they are all fighting for their country... there is plenty of motivation.
How did you learn that you were to command the Tactical Artillery Group of one of the new Ukrainian brigades?
It was a normal day in the war, nothing particularly relevant happened. But I had to face something very difficult: to leave the 92nd Brigade, where I had been serving Ukraine for more than 20 years. It was not easy.
I received a call from the chief of Artillery of the Armed Forces, taking it for granted that I was going to accept. It was an order, come on [he laughs]. Then they sent me a bunch of papers to sign, and it was official.