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Russia targeted Ukrainian ammunition to weaken Kyiv on the battlefield

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KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine has run out of shells for the majority of its artillery in part because of a covert Russian campaign of intimidation and sabotage over the past eight years, including shelling of ammunition depots keys across Eastern Europe that officials have linked to Moscow, according to Ukrainian government officials and military analysts.

Fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine is now almost exclusively a near-constant exchange of artillery, and the shortage of shells in Ukraine has exacerbated what was already a battlefield lag against a Russian army with more weapons. Russia fires more than 60,000 shells a day, 10 times more than the Ukrainians, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar told The Washington Post.

Most Ukrainian artillery pieces date back to the Soviet Union, which means they rely on the same 122mm and 152mm caliber shells that Russia uses. But outside of Russia there is very little supply – largely because Russia has spent years targeting storage facilities and ammunition suppliers from Ukraine and other Eastern European countries. before launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February. Russia also took other steps to acquire the ammunition or prevent its sale to Ukraine.

“Even if everyone gives us this ammunition, it still won’t be enough,” Malyar said, adding that Ukraine uses more 152mm shells than is produced in the world in a day.

Howitzers used by NATO and the United States fire 105mm and 155mm shells. Western countries provided Ukraine with many of these shells, but only a limited number of systems to fire them. Despite American and European promises to send more artillery, Ukraine still does not have enough to fully replace its old Soviet-era equipment with NATO-standard weaponry.

A kind of shadow war is going on for the few 152 mm shells available on the world market. A US citizen helping negotiate arms transfers to Ukraine said he recently approached an Eastern European country to negotiate the purchase of artillery cartridges. Officials there said they couldn’t make a deal, the man said, because the Russians had already warned they “would kill them if they sold anything to the Ukrainians”.

The arms broker was interviewed on condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

The countries that still have stocks of 152mm cartridges are largely former Soviet republics, many of which are hesitant to sell to Ukraine because they have close ties to Russia. Some countries in Africa and the Middle East, which have received weapons and ammunition from Russia over the years, also have stockpiles of these shells. A few former Warsaw Pact countries have the capability to manufacture the shells, but not at the scale and speed Ukraine needs on the battlefield.

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The arms broker said it had to make some arms transfers appear as though they were going through an unrelated country to hide the origin of the purchase. In other cases, Ukraine thought it had a deal, but a buyer working on behalf of Russia stepped in at the last minute and bid aggressively, he said.

The United States and Britain have also tried to help Ukraine obtain Soviet-era equipment, officials said, to provide more security for smaller countries fearing retaliation from Russia. if they supply arms directly to Ukraine.

Malyar said “the Russians are working very hard to make sure we can’t sign contracts for this – and then, if we sign a contract, to stop us from having the shells delivered here.”

Russia has long known that in a long attrition war against Ukraine, Kyiv could run out of ammunition, military analysts said. Ukraine also knew this was a weakness, but the situation only became dire when Russian troops and tanks crossed its northern, eastern and southern borders on February 24. The first round of airstrikes early that morning also targeted Ukrainian ammunition stockpiles.

“There were concerns and there were constant discussions that we had to produce the ammunition ourselves,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s former defense minister.

“But even if the Ukrainian government had started manufacturing, the factory would have been destroyed by the Russians from day one,” he added.

In 2014, after Russia first invaded Ukraine and fueled a separatist war in the east of the country, members of the Russian military intelligence unit 29155 sabotaged munitions stored in depots in the Czech Republic , according to the Czech authorities.

The following year, according to Bellingcat, a Britain-based investigative organization, members of the same unit used a nerve agent to poison a Bulgarian weapons official, who told The New York Times that he had stored ammunition in the Czech facilities and had sold weapons. to Ukraine.

Russian saboteurs are also suspected of causing four explosions at Bulgarian arms depots from 2011 to 2020, according to Bulgarian prosecutors, who said Moscow aimed to disrupt supplies to Ukraine and Georgia.

Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, “appears to have waged a campaign across Europe in an attempt to suppress Ukraine’s ammunition supply,” said Virginia-based CNA Russian military analyst Michael Kofman. . “They were probably doing it with forethought.”

Ukrainian officials suspect that Russian and separatist saboteurs have expanded the effort inside Ukraine in recent years, leading to a series of explosions at munitions storage facilities.

Explosions in 2017 at two large Ukrainian depots, which together had stored 221 metric tons of ammunition, caused a massive setback to Ukrainian forces, depriving them of essential supplies that would be difficult and expensive to replace.

Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council at the time, Oleksandr Turchynov, said the two explosions in March and September 2017 destroyed “a huge amount of ammunition” and represented the biggest blow raised to Ukraine’s defense capability since the beginning of the conflict with Russia. .

Ukraine runs out of ammunition as battlefield outlook dims

An explosion the following year at a depot in the Chernihiv region storing an additional 88,000 tons of ammunition was another setback for Ukraine’s arsenal.

“Conventional wars over time come down to who has the equipment, the ammunition, the manpower,” Kofman said. “That’s why fighting with powers like Russia is dangerous. It’s dangerous because even if the Russian military performs badly at first, and it often does… Russia is a country with substantial resources.

The Russian military has long emphasized Soviet-era artillery, maintaining large reserves of artillery shells, as well as production capacity. It is unclear how much of its ammunition arsenal Russia has spent on the war so far.

The United States has committed 126 howitzers and supplied a matching 260,000 155mm artillery rounds to Ukraine since the start of the Biden administration, equivalent to the amount of ammunition that Russia, according to Ukrainian officials, spends in about five days.

The U.S. military has focused on fighting counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two decades, minimizing artillery warfare and using artillery batteries as infantry units in operations of counter-insurgency.

The U.S. military made headlines in 2018 when it requested the purchase of nearly 148,297 rounds for 155mm howitzers in its annual budget, up from 16,573 the previous fiscal year, as the service expands. refocused on conventional warfare in a context of tension with Russia.

“We were all reminded of the immense amount of ordnance that would be consumed in extensive, high-intensity combat,” said Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the US Army in Europe.

Hodges expressed optimism that more US and European artillery systems committed to Ukraine are beginning to arrive, along with the munitions needed to operate them, and should impact the battlefield within three to four next weeks.

“We are where we are, but I remain optimistic that this tide will turn here in the next few weeks,” Hodges said.

Hodges lamented that the Ukrainians had not received more NATO-standard weapons in the years leading up to the war. It was seen as a big step in 2015 when the Obama administration provided the Ukrainian military with AN/TPQ-36 counter-artillery radars, he said, noting that even then there were limitations built into the systems.

“The idea of ​​giving them tanks and artillery – that wasn’t going to happen,” Hodges said. “Because of this exaggerated fear that what we’re doing is somehow provoking the Russians.”

Sonne reported from Washington. Serhiy Morgunov and David Stern in Kyiv contributed reporting.

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Post expires at 11:55pm on Monday July 4th, 2022

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