Ukraine’s ammunition becomes defining issue in battle for Donbas

For Ukraine’s military the question of ammunition for its artillery has been something of a catch-22.

In the battle for Donbas in the east – which has become largely an artillery duel between Russian and Ukrainian forces – Kyiv has been heavily reliant until recently on Soviet-era ammunition for the artillery that makes up a large part of its arsenal.

Now that ammunition is running desperately short, Ukraine is appealing to its allies to replace its artillery with systems that use Nato ammunition, weapons that are arriving slowly in comparison with Ukraine’s needs.

“This is an artillery war now,” Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence, said earlier this month.

“We are losing in terms of artillery. Everything now depends on what [the west] gives us," hy het bygevoeg. “Ukraine has one artillery piece to 10 aan 15 Russian artillery pieces. Our western partners have given us about 10% of what they have.”

At the centre of the issue is the fact that US and Nato and Soviet-era artillery use different calibres of shell that are not interchangeable.

Nato’s standard shells are 105mm and 155mm. Ukraine’s guns, that date back to the time of the cold war, fire 122-152mm shells.

Stocks of 152mm shells tend to be held by former Soviet republics, whose ability to sell to Kyiv is complicated by continuing relationships with Moscow, while a number of African and Middle Eastern countries also hold stocks. Moscow has been running a clandestine campaign to prevent former Warsaw Pact and other countries that do have the ammunition from supplying it to Ukraine.

Despite intense efforts by the Pentagon – and by private arms dealers – to find additional 152mm shells, it appears that there are now few to be had.

The issue has been a defining one in Donbas in recent weeks, where it has been estimated that Russian forces are firing up to 60,000 shells a day in comparison with Ukraine’s 5-6,000. Kyiv’s troops have increasingly been forced to conserve ammunition.

According to some analysts, Russia itself is facing problems with the supply of ammunition, although it has a much larger stock than Ukraine.

And while Ukraine’s allies in the west have been working to supply systems compatible with Nato shells, the wholesale transformation of Ukraine’s military in the midst of a conflict is lagging behind Kyiv’s battlefield requirements.

Another issue in transitioning to Nato systems is training. While Ukraine is receiving systems such as the M777 155mm howitzer and longer-range multiple-launch rocket systems such as the US-supplied Himars, Ukrainian troops need to be trained to use them.

“We have munitions of the new type, but we still lack guns [to fire them],” Mariana Bezugla, deputy head of the national security, defence and intelligence committee in the Ukrainian parliament recently told the Washington Post, adding that Ukraine used more of the Soviet-era shells than were produced globally in one day.

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