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Russia targeted Ukrainian ammunition to weaken Kyiv on the battlefield

Ukrainian forces transport a 152 mm howitzer 2A65 Msta-B along a main road in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine on June 12. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine is running out of shells for the majority of its artillery in part because of a clandestine Russian campaign of bullying and sabotage over the past eight years, including bombings of key munitions depots 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 Ukraine’s shortage of shells has exacerbated what was already a mismatch on the battlefield against a Russian military with more weapons. Russia is firing more than 60,000 shells per day — 10 times more than the Ukrainians, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar told The Washington Post.

Most of Ukraine’s artillery pieces date back to the Soviet Union, meaning they rely on the same 122mm- and 152mm-caliber rounds that Russia uses. But outside of Russia, very little supply exists — in large part because Russia spent years targeting Ukrainian and other Eastern European ammunition storage facilities and suppliers before launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February. Russia has also taken other steps to acquire the ammunition or otherwise prevent its sale to Ukraine.

“Even if everyone gives us this ammunition, it will still not be enough,” Malyar said, adding that Ukraine uses more of the 152mm shells than are produced globally in one day.

Howitzers used by NATO and the United States fire 105mm and 155mm shells. Western countries supplied Ukraine with plenty of those shells but only a limited number of systems to fire them. Despite U.S. and European pledges to send more artillery, Ukraine still does not have enough to replace its old Soviet-era equipment entirely with NATO-standard weaponry.

A sort of shadow war is taking place for what few 152mm shells are available on the global market. A U.S. citizen helping to broker weapons transfers to Ukraine said he recently approached an Eastern European country to negotiate a purchase of artillery rounds. Officials in that country said they couldn’t make a deal, the man said, because the Russians had already warned that they would “kill them if they sold anything to the Ukrainians.”

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

The countries that still have stocks of 152mm rounds are largely former Soviet republics, many of which are hesitant to sell to Ukraine because they maintain close ties with Russia. Some African and Middle Eastern countries, which have received weapons and ammunition from Russia over the years, also have stocks of those shells. A few former Warsaw Pact countries have the capacity to manufacture the shells but not at the scale and speed Ukraine needs on the battlefield.

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The arms broker said he has had to make some weapons transfers appear as if they traveled through an unrelated country to obscure the origin of the purchase. In other cases, Ukraine thought it had a deal done, but then a buyer working on behalf of Russia swooped in at the last minute and aggressively outbid, he said.

The United States and Britain have also attempted to help Ukraine obtain Soviet-era materiel, officials said, to offer more security to smaller countries who fear retaliation from Russia if they provide the weapons to Ukraine directly.

Malyar said that “the Russians are working very hard to ensure that we can’t sign contracts for this — and then if we sign a contract, to prevent us from getting the shells delivered here.”

Russia has long known that in a drawn-out war of attrition against Ukraine, Kyiv would risk running out of ammunition, military analysts said. Ukraine knew it was a weakness, too, but the situation didn’t become dire until Russian troops and tanks rolled across its northern, eastern and southern borders on Feb. 24. The first round of airstrikes early that morning also targeted Ukrainian ammunition stocks.

“There were some concerns, and there were constant discussions that we need to produce the ammunition ourselves,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister.

“But even if the Ukrainian government started manufacturing, the facility would’ve been destroyed by Russians on Day 1,” he added.

In 2014, after Russia first invaded Ukraine and fueled a separatist war in the country’s east, members of the elite Russian military intelligence unit 29155 sabotaged ammunition stored at depots in the Czech Republic, according to 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 executive, who told the New York Times he had been storing ammunition at the Czech facilities and had sold arms to Ukraine.

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

Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, “appears to have had a campaign across Europe to try to suppress the supply of munitions to Ukraine,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at Virginia-based CNA. “They were likely doing it with foresight.”

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

Blasts in 2017 at two big Ukrainian depots, which together had stored 221 metric tons of ammunition, dealt a massive setback to Ukrainian forces, sapping them of critical supplies that would be difficult and expensive to replace.

The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council at the time, Oleksandr Turchynov, said the two blasts in March and September 2017 ruined “an enormous amount of ammunition” and represented the biggest blow to Ukraine’s defense capability since the start of the conflict with Russia.

Ukraine is running out of ammunition as prospects dim on the battlefield

An explosion the following year at a depot in the Chernihiv region storing another 88,000 metric tons of ammunition was another setback for the Ukrainian arsenal.

“Conventional wars over time come down to who has the equipment, the ammunition, the manpower,” Kofman said. “This is why fights with powers like Russia are dangerous. They are dangerous because even if the Russian military performs poorly at the beginning, and they often do … Russia is a country with substantial resources.”

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

The United States has committed 126 howitzers and provided 260,000 corresponding 155mm artillery rounds to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration, equivalent to the amount of ammunition that Russia, according to the Ukrainian officials, is expending in the course of about five days.

The U.S. military focused on fighting counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two decades, de-emphasizing artillery warfare and using artillery batteries as infantry units in counterinsurgency operations.

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

“We have all been reminded of the immense amount of ammunition that would be consumed in extensive, high-intensity combat,” said Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe.

Hodges expressed optimism that more of the U.S. and European artillery systems committed to Ukraine are beginning to arrive, along with the ammunition needed to operate them, and should show impact on the battlefield in the next three to four weeks.

“We are where we are, but I do remain optimistic that this tide is going to turn here in the next weeks,” Hodges said.

Hodges lamented that the Ukrainians had not been given more NATO-standard weaponry in the years leading up to the war. It was considered a huge 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 was not going to happen,” Hodges said. “Because of this exaggerated fear that somehow what we are doing was going to provoke the Russians.”

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