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Ukraine scatters arsenal to protect weapons from Russian strikes

An intense ‘cat-and-mouse’ game to preserve Ukraine’s Western weapons could determine the next phase of the war

Ukrainian forces transport a rocket launcher in the Donetsk region on May 30. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

The Russian military is increasing attacks on Ukrainian arms depots to deprive the country of Western weapons critical to prevailing in the four-month war.

But in response, the Ukrainian military is dispersing and decentralizing its weapons arsenal across an array of warehouses in an effort to lessen the potential losses caused by any one Russian strike, said U.S. officials familiar with the strategy.

The wider distribution of weapons has attracted more Russian cruise missile strikes in recent weeks, officials said, but has resulted in fewer strikes eliminating large supplies of arms and ammunition.

“This is consistent with how one would go about increasing the survivability of the weapons and ammo you need to bring to the front,” said George Barros, a geospatial analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank that analyzes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine using open source data. “Wars are won by logistics. Those weapons systems are going to be decisive, especially as the Ukrainians attempt to create a counteroffensive, likely later this summer.”

Ukrainians are also taking special precautions while the weapons are in transit, U.S. officials said. When moving weapons by rail, Ukrainians have left some train cars empty. When transporting by road, convoys have included trucks with no cargo, limiting the potential losses of a successful Russian attack.

The game of cat-and-mouse comes as fighting intensifies in the eastern Donbas region, where an outgunned Ukrainian military is exchanging near-constant artillery fire with Russian counterparts in a highly lethal and grinding phase of the war, which began Feb. 24.

U.S. and Ukrainian officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations.

Todd Breasseale, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on Kyiv’s distribution of weapons but said Ukrainian forces have displayed “remarkable battlefield nimbleness, creativity, tenacity, and courage as they defend themselves and their land from Russia’s reckless, unlawful, and deeply inhumane prosecution of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war.”

Sergey Nikiforov, a spokesman for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, said he would not discuss “military strategy.”

U.S. officials recently briefed Congress on Ukraine’s sleight-of-hand tactics amid questions from lawmakers about whether the billions of dollars in U.S. military aid was surviving Russia’s airstrikes.

President Biden signed a $40 billion security assistance package to Ukraine into law in May. He has since added to that with $450 million in military aid announced last week, including multiple launch rocket systems and artillery ammunition, on top of a $1 billion package last month including howitzers and coastal defense systems.

The administration is expected to soon announce its purchase of an advanced medium-to-long range surface-to-air missile defense system for Ukraine, as well as other items of “urgent need, including ammunition for artillery and counter-battery radar systems,” the president’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Monday.

Without the massive influx of weaponry, Ukrainian forces would be quickly overwhelmed by the Russian military, which fires more than 60,000 shells per day, 10 times more than the Ukrainians, officials in Kyiv told The Washington Post.

Determining Russia’s success in hitting Ukrainian arms depots remains difficult amid the fog of war.

Nearly every day, Russia’s defense ministry announces new strikes on Ukrainian depots, though its claims often come under scrutiny. On Monday, Ukraine said Russia bombed a shopping mall in the city of Kremenchuk, killing at least 18 people and injuring dozens of others. Russian officials denied the claim, saying they hit a nearby arms depot that caused an explosion that ignited a fire at the mall.

“In Kremenchuk, Russian forces struck a weapons depot storing arms received from the United States and Europe with high-precision air-based weapons,” Russia’s defense ministry said.

The Group of Seven nations, consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, called the attack a Russian war crime, while Zelensky described it as “one of the most defiant terrorist attacks in European history.”

“You never know whether they’re just lying,” said Rob Lee, an analyst of the Russian military at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Ukraine’s efforts to decentralize its weapons depots began in earnest in May and June after significant weapons stocks were lost in Russian missile strikes in the spring, said U.S. officials.

Ukraine’s arsenal would be in much more jeopardy if Russia’s air force controlled the skies, officials said, which would allow the Kremlin to disrupt the movement of supplies and reinforcements.

“They don’t have air superiority, so their main way of interdicting this equipment is to strike facilities when the equipment is stationary,” Lee said.

In some instances where Russian aircraft have spotted Ukrainian shipments en route to a depot, the pilot’s inability to fire upon targets without seeking higher approval has thwarted Russian efforts, officials said.

“On the battlefield, they always have to go up to their superordinate commander who then might have to go up to a higher level in order to get clearance,” Barros said. “That, of course, takes time and robs the Russians of the initiative on the battlefield, which they’ve been trying to correct.”

The vast majority of strikes on Ukrainian depots are from Russian cruise missile attacks. Those strikes, coupled with the need to respond to Russia’s artillery barrages, have created significant demand for additional weapons and ammunition in Ukraine.

The United States has improved the flow of weapons, a Ukrainian lawmaker said, after Kyiv promised not to use them to hit targets on Russian soil.

The fluid battlefield dynamics, in which needs in some areas can change quickly, highlight the need for a continuous flow of weapons and ammunition into storage depots around the country, said the lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss battlefield dynamics.

Oftentimes, the lawmaker said, it is better to send a large supply of weapons into the east, then disperse them to units as commanders see fit, while other times they may need to send small batches to resolve urgent shortages.

Besides defending its own depots, Ukraine’s military is also seeking to go on offense and strike Russian depots — something it can more easily do as a result of U.S. shipments of advanced long-range rocket systems known as HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System).

Barros, the geospatial analyst, said Ukrainians have used the HIMARS to hit Russian arms depots in the Luhansk region in recent days, an important tactic in defending the country.

“If you degrade the Russians’ ability to mass artillery, it degrades their ability to stand up an offensive,” he said.

Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.