DONETSK REGION, Ukraine — Nearly four months after Russia invaded, the Ukrainian military is running out of ammunition for its Soviet-era artillery and has not received enough supplies from its allies to keep the Russians at bay, Ukrainian officials and artillery officers in say the field.
The shortage has placed Ukrainian forces at an increasing disadvantage in the artillery-driven war of attrition in the east of the country, with Russian batteries now firing multiple times as many rounds as Ukraine’s. As the West sends weapons, they are not arriving fast enough or in sufficient numbers to make up for Ukraine’s dwindling arsenal.
Western weapons, long-range heavy artillery pieces, and multi-launch missile systems are more accurate and highly mobile, but take time to deploy and train soldiers to use them. Meanwhile, Ukraine is running out of ammunition for the older weapons.
On the front lines in Donbas, Ukrainian soldiers are forced to conserve grenades and are often unable to return them one by one.
At a Ukrainian artillery position on Friday, several Russian shells had just flown over and landed in a field of methodical blast when the gun’s crew were told to get ready to fire. Their drones had spotted a group of Russian howitzers a few miles away.
The soldiers scrambled and pulled branches from their 122 millimeter self-propelled cannon camouflaged on the edge of a wooded area. The barrel tilted toward the air before firing just two shots, sending debris and leaves into the air.
A few weeks ago, the cannon would have fired constantly, the crew said. Instead of covering Russian positions with ammunition, they can now only attack specific targets, such as the Russian howitzers.
“We’re running out of grenades,” said Oleg, one of the crew’s soldiers, dressed in dirty pants and skateboard sneakers. “They are not delivered fast enough because we shoot too often.”
Mariana Bezugla, a member of the Ukrainian parliament and deputy head of the National Security, Defense and Intelligence Commission, said similar shortages of ammunition for Soviet-era weapons occurred in the Eastern Theater, where Ukrainian forces have been fighting to secure resources. to keep. -rich Donbas, which includes the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
“They have a lot of resources, a lot of ammunition,” Ms Bezugla said of the Russians. “It cannot be compared to ours.”
Ms Bezugla said Ukraine has received a lot of ammunition for its new NATO artillery pieces, but it still doesn’t have enough of those weapons to replace the older equipment. “We have new-type ammunition, but we still don’t have any weapons” to fire them, she said.
Pentagon officials say they have exhausted all efforts to gather available Soviet and Russian weapons and ammunition for Ukrainian forces to use, after months of horse-trading with allies still using the old systems. A senior US military official acknowledged that the well had dried up and said Ukraine would likely depend on Western ammunition systems to defend itself against Russia in the east.
But that means training Ukrainian troops on the new systems needs to be accelerated, the official said, which could take some time. Pentagon officials have greatly reduced the time it takes Ukrainian troops to train compared to what US troops spend before being declared proficient in some weapon systems.
On Friday, Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence, told The Guardian newspaper that Ukraine was losing the artillery battle with Russia on the front lines due to the shortage of artillery shells for its older guns. He said Ukraine was firing 5,000 to 6,000 artillery shells a day and had “used up nearly all of our ammunition.”
By contrast, Russian troops fire about 60,000 artillery shells and rockets into the Donbas fighting every day, according to a senior adviser to the Ukrainian military command who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia, said ammunition stockpiles would be critical to the ultimate outcome in the battle for eastern Ukraine.
“This war is much more about artillery exhaustion than maneuver, meaning one of the deciding factors is who has more ammunition,” he said.
That Ukraine was running out of ammunition has hardly been a secret. Ukrainian officials signaled the problem months ago. On the front lines, commanders watched in alarm as supplies dwindled halfway through the battle. Soldiers say requests for artillery support go unanswered due to lack of shells.
Vadym Mischuk, 32, a Ukrainian soldier who had just turned from the front line near the eastern city of Bakhmut, said on Thursday there is so much Russian artillery fire that “we don’t even hear ours”. One soldier, who declined to give his name for security reasons, estimated that for every Ukrainian shell fired, the Russians fired 10.
The Ukrainian military has been honest about its shortcomings — something an army would not normally telegraph to the enemy in war — perhaps because it adds a sense of urgency to calls for more powerful Western weaponry.
“We were well aware at the beginning of March that our resources would be depleted during an intensive war with Russia,” Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov wrote on Facebook on Thursday. He added: “Relying solely on Soviet weapons was definitely a losing strategy.”
Even before the invasion, Ukraine’s ammunition depots were targeted by saboteurs, who regularly blew up like gigantic, deadly dangerous fireworks displays.
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In many cases, spies or drones that dropped incendiary bombs were blamed. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, six ammunition depots exploded in Ukraine between 2015 and 2019, burning about 210,000 tons of ammunition, or three times more than the Ukrainian military spent fighting Russian-backed separatists in the same time frame.
After the Russian invasion, NATO countries intervened to boost Ukraine’s ammunition stock, but the transfers have not always gone smoothly. Old Warsaw Pact and NATO nations used ammunition of various calibers — an enduring legacy that means much of Ukraine’s arsenal, built decades ago to Soviet specifications, can’t fire Western munitions.
The newly acquired stock of 155 millimeters of NATO artillery shells now exceeds the entire stock of artillery ammunition before the start of the war, Mr Reznikov said. But Ukraine’s armed forces are running out of cannons at the front to fire the ammunition and face major logistical challenges not only getting them into battle but also keeping them there.
Some European countries have shipped so much of their own ammunition reserves to Ukraine — up to 30 percent in some cases — that they are increasingly concerned about replenishing their stocks, European Union officials said.
Officials said that while there was still a relatively steady flow of military equipment from the EU and its allies, Ukraine was not receiving as much heavy artillery as needed.
With artillery shells in short supply, Ukrainian forces have adapted their tactics to compensate for the lack of artillery support. For example, on Friday, a tank unit in Donbas used a Ukrainian T-64BV tank more as an artillery piece than a main battle tank.
Instead of attacking targets directly, the tank moved forward several miles, positioned itself in a tree line and launched grenades at Russian positions while a Ukrainian officer radioed his target and used a drone overhead – the procedure commonly used. used with mortars or howitzers.
“It is already a fact that the tanks are being used because there is not enough artillery,” said the artillery unit commander, who asked to pass by his nom de guerre, Razor. His unit of 122 millimeter self-propelled howitzers ran out of Ukrainian ammunition and was now using Czech-supplied grenades.
But ammunition can be fickle. Decades-old ammunition can become unreliable if not properly preserved over time, potentially leading to more duds. Another soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a batch of missiles supplied by the Czech Republic was faulty, with only three of 40 fired.
Ukrainian soldiers injured in the fighting have also expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of artillery support, which they attribute to a lack of ammunition.
“There is not an hour with a pause” in Russian bombing, said Lt. Oleksandr Kolesnikov, who was injured late last month, in an ambulance interview while being evacuated to a hospital in the west. “The artillery is very intense.” He said his commander called in artillery in response, but received only one salvo.
Russian artillery superiority has scared soldiers, he said. “In war everything is scary and we are afraid of everything. Only idiots are not afraid.”
Reporting contributed by Oleksandr Chubko from Kramatorsk, Ukraine, Maria Varenikova from Barvinkove, Ukraine, Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels and Helene Cooper and John Ismay from Washington.