Russia targeted Ukrainian ammunition to weaken Kyiv on the battlefield

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KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine is depleting most of its artillery in part due to Russia’s campaign of covert bullying and sabotage over the past eight years, including bombings of key ammunition depots across the East Europe where officials have ties to Moscow, according to Ukrainian government officials and military analysts.

The fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine is now almost a constant exchange of artillery, and Ukraine’s lack of artillery has exacerbated what was already inadequate on the battlefield before. a Russian army has more weapons. Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar told the Washington Post that Russia is firing more than 60,000 rounds a day – 10 times more than Ukraine.

Most of the Ukrainian artillery pieces are from the Soviet era, which means they are based on the same 122mm and 152mm ammunition used by Russia. But outside Russia, very little supply exists – in large part because Russia spent years targeting ammunition depot facilities and suppliers in Ukraine and other Eastern European countries before launching the invasion. comprehensively into Ukraine at the end of February. Russia has also taken other steps to acquire ammunition stock or prevent its sale to Ukraine.

“Even if people give us this ammunition, it will not be enough,” Malyar said, adding that Ukraine uses more 152mm shells than is produced globally in a day.

The gun used by NATO and the United States fires 105mm and 155mm shells. Western countries have supplied Ukraine with many of these shells, but with only a limited number of systems to fire them. Although the US and Europe pledged to send more artillery, Ukraine still does not have enough to completely replace old equipment from the Soviet era with standard NATO weapons.

A sort of shadow war is taking place over some of the 152mm shells available in the global market. An American citizen who helped broker arms transfers to Ukraine said he recently approached an Eastern European country to negotiate the purchase of artillery shells. The man said that the country’s officials said they could not reach an agreement because the Russians had warned that they would “kill them if they sold anything to the Ukrainians”.

The arms dealer was interviewed on condition of anonymity to speak frankly.

The countries that still have 152mm ammunition stockpiles are mostly former Soviet republics, many of which are hesitant to sell to Ukraine because they maintain close relations with Russia. Several African and Middle Eastern countries, which have received arms and ammunition from Russia over the years, also have stockpiles of such shells. Some of the former Warsaw Pact countries are capable of producing artillery shells, but not at the scale and speed that Ukraine needs on the battlefield.

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The arms broker said he had to make several transfers of weapons as if they were traveling through an unrelated country to conceal the origin of the purchase. In other cases, Ukraine thought it had done a deal, but then a buyer working on Russia’s behalf rushed in at the last minute and forcefully paid a higher price, he said.

The United States and Britain have also worked to help Ukraine acquire Soviet-era weapons, officials said, in an attempt to provide greater security for smaller countries that fear retaliation from Russia if they supply weapons directly. for Ukraine.

Malyar said that “the Russians are working very hard to make sure we can’t contract for this – and then if we do, that will prevent us from getting shells delivered here. “

Russia has long known that in a war of attrition against Ukraine, Kyiv would run the risk of running out of ammunition, military analysts say. Ukraine also knew it was a weak point, but the situation did not become serious until Russian troops and tanks overran the country’s northern, eastern and southern borders on February 24. first thing early that morning also targeted Ukraine’s ammunition depot.

Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s former defense minister, said: “There are concerns and there have been ongoing discussions that we need to produce our own ammunition.

“But even if the Ukrainian government starts production, the facility will be destroyed by the Russians on day 1,” he added.

In 2014, after Russia first invaded Ukraine and ignited a separatist war in the east of the country, members of Russia’s elite military intelligence unit 29155 sabotaged an ammunition depot stored in Ukraine. depots in the Czech Republic, according to the Czech authorities.

Next year, follow Bellingcat, a British-based investigative organization, members of the same unit used a nerve agent to poison a Bulgarian firearms executive who told The New York Times, he stored ammunition in Czech facilities and sold arms to Ukraine.

According to Bulgarian prosecutors, Russian saboteurs are also suspected of causing four explosions at Bulgarian weapons depots between 2011 and 2020, according to Bulgarian prosecutors, who say Moscow is targeting aimed at disrupting supplies to Ukraine and Georgia.

Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, “seems to have been running a campaign across Europe to try to stop the supply of weapons to Ukraine,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at CNA-based CNA. based in Virginia, said. “They can do it with foresight.”

Ukrainian officials suspect Russia and the separatists have expanded their efforts inside Ukraine in recent years, leading to a series of explosions at ammunition storage facilities.

Explosions in 2017 at two large Ukrainian depots, which together housed 221 tons of ammunition, posed a major setback to Ukrainian forces, robbing them of a vital and difficult-to-replace and costly supply .

Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine at the time, Oleksandr Turchynov, said two explosions in March and September 2017 destroyed “a large amount of ammunition” and were the strongest blow to Ukraine’s defensive capabilities since the beginning of the conflict with Russia. .

Ukraine is about to run out of ammunition as prospects dim on the battlefield

An explosion the following year at an armory in the Chernihiv region containing another 88,000 tons of ammunition was also another setback for Ukraine’s arsenal.

“Conventional wars over time depend on who has the equipment, the ammunition, the manpower,” Kofman said. “This is why wars with great powers like Russia are so dangerous. They are very dangerous because even if the Russian military is inefficient in the first place, and they often do… Russia is a country with considerable resources. ”

The Russian military has long emphasized that Soviet-era artillery still maintains considerable ammunition reserves as well as production capacity. It is not clear how much Russia spent on ammunition during the war.

The United States has committed 126 artillery pieces and provided The equivalent of 260,000 rounds of 155mm artillery shells for Ukraine since the Biden administration began, is about the same amount that Russia, according to Ukrainian officials, will use over the next five days or so.

The US military focused on fighting counter-insurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two decades, not focusing on artillery warfare, and using artillery batteries as infantry units in operations. counter insurgency.

US Army Make the title in 2018 when it requested the purchase of nearly 148,297 rounds of 155mm caliber artillery shells in its annual budget, up from 16,573 rounds the previous fiscal year, as the service focuses on conventional warfare amid tensions with the Russia.

“We are all reminded of the enormous amount of ammunition that will be consumed in large-scale and intense battles,” said Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe.

Hodges expressed optimism that many of the American and European artillery systems committed to Ukraine are beginning to be equipped with the ammunition needed to operate them, and will have an impact on the battlefield in three to four weeks. next.

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

Hodges lamented that Ukraine was not supplied with additional NATO-standard weapons in the years leading up to the war. This was seen as a big step forward in 2015 when the Obama administration supplied the Ukrainian military with the AN/TPQ-36 jet radars, he said, noting that even then, these systems still have limitations. regime.

“The idea of ​​giving them tanks and artillery — that’s not going to happen,” Hodges said. “Because of this overwhelming fear that somehow what we’re doing will provoke the Russians.”

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

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