Ukraine's ammo crisis mounts on stalled US aid

Ukraine's ammo crisis mounts on stalled US aid
Ukraine is in rapidly growing ammo crisis and faces the risk of running out first air defence rockets soon and then the crucial artillery shells in just a few months is the US does not vote through fresh resources soon. / Guillaume Ptak
By bne IntelliNews April 11, 2024

General Christopher Cavoli, the top US commander in Europe, cautioned during a congressional hearing on April 10 that Ukraine is on the brink of running out of ammunition and air defence interceptor missiles. Kyiv is in urgent need of renewed support from the US in the next months if it is to avoid conceding more territory or possibly losing the war completely.

The calls for more US aid are becoming increasingly stringent. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on April 7 that failure to approve military assistance from Congress could result in Ukraine’s loss.

“If there is no US support, it means that we have no air defence, no Patriot missiles, no jammers for electronic warfare, no 155-milimetre artillery rounds,” Zelenskiy told The Washington Post in a recent interview. “It means we will go back, retreat, step by step, in small steps.”

Ukraine is at great risk of its front lines collapsing, according to high-ranking Ukrainian officers, Politico reports. The military picture is grim and Russia is preparing for a spring offensive that could break through Ukraine’s defence in the coming months if more support is not sent to Kyiv soon. 

As bne IntelliNews reported, Ukraine has been under-supplied with ammunition since the start of last year, as despite significant help that has prevented the defeat of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), the West has consistently sent too little materiel too late to allow Ukraine’s forces to turn the tide of battle.

US financial support for Ukraine already began to dwindle last August, but things have rapidly deteriorated since January, when the US ran out of money for Ukraine and military supplies dried up completely.

At the same time, Russia has increased the pressure on Ukraine’s armed forces to force it into using its limited reserves by launching a massive missile barrage in January, which was renewed and intensified in an even bigger barrage in March.

According to President Zelenskiy, in March the Russian Federation launched more than 400 missiles of various types and approximately 600 Shahed drones into the cities and villages of Ukraine in just one month. In addition, the enemy used more than 3,000 guided aerial bombs.

The lack of supplies has already made itself felt, when the AFU lost control of Avdiivka on February 17, giving the Russian forces the initiative on the battlefield, and the Kremlin has been seeking to capitalise on its advantage with renewed assaults along the entire line of contact.

The ammunition shortage has allowed Russian forces to maintain a disproportionate advantage, firing at least five shells for every one discharged by Ukraine, a ratio that Cavoli fears could worsen to 10 to one in the coming weeks.

"They are really dependent this year on us...and without our support, they will not be able to prevail," Cavoli emphasised, stressing the pivotal role of US aid in bolstering Ukraine's defence.

Western financial and military aid has become snarled in internal wrangling since last November. The mooted Biden-backed aid bill for approximately $60bn in assistance for Ukraine has yet to be brought to a vote by US House Speaker Mike Johnson, despite its approval by the Senate in February. Johnson's reluctance has drawn criticism, with Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin urging him to "put on his big boy pants" and make the necessary decision.

Amid the political impasse, Republican lawmaker Marjorie Taylor Greene has threatened to oust Johnson if he allows a vote on Ukraine aid, further complicating efforts to address Ukraine's urgent needs.

With the skies open again, exposing Ukrainian cities to Russian missile attacks, Europe has been rushing to scrap together fresh supplies of Patriot missiles to protect crucial power infrastructure as a top priority.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba expressed gratitude for the willingness of the EU to intensify efforts in securing Patriot systems, while Germany has initiated an analysis of existing Patriot batteries and other air defence systems for potential transfer to Ukraine.

But as Ukraine’s situation continues to deteriorate, the onus of supplying Ukraine to avoid complete disaster has fallen increasingly on Europe’s shoulders.

Nearly three quarters of Germany’s arms exports in 2024 are intended for Ukraine, with $5.3bn approved for export to the country between January 1 and March 27 this year alone.

Nevertheless, the policy remains to send enough military supplies to ensure Ukraine does not lose the war, but not enough so that it can win.

Zelenskiy has been calling on Germany to provide Ukraine with its powerful Taurus cruise missiles that are a potential gamechanger, but Berlin has thus far consistently avoided agreeing. The lack of commitment to give Ukraine the weapons systems it needs that could make a difference was thrown into sharp relief this month when the maker of the Taurus announced it was halting production of the missiles altogether because of the “lack of orders” after the federal government halted procurement of the missile.

France is also stepping into the beach with a promise to increase military support for Ukraine. French Defence Minister Sebastien Lecornu said last week France will deliver hundreds of armoured vehicles to Ukraine in 2024 and early 2025 as part of a new military aid package. Paris has also prepared a batch of Aster anti-aircraft missiles for the SAMP/T air defence system.

However, crucially the EU has failed to make good on a promise to send Ukraine 1mn artillery shells by March, delivering a bit more than a tenth of that amount by the deadline. Czechia followed up with an initiative to source 1mn shells from outside the EU and in March said that it had raised the money to pay for them, but these shells have also yet to arrive in Kyiv.

By contrast, Russia has boosted its production of shells from 2mn rounds a year to 3mn, and has put its own economy on a total war footing.

Part of the problem is that few of Nato’s European members have increased their defence spending to the mandated 2% of GDP in general and have been dragging their feet on signing military procurement contracts needed to supply Ukraine with weapons since last summer when the need became apparent. As bne IntelliNews reported from the front line during the Bakhmut offensive last year, the AFU frontline units were already forced to ration shells last March. Bakhmut was captured by Wagner mercenaries two months later.

The upshot is that Nato members have depleted their own stocks of weapons and are now scraping the barrel to supply Ukraine, forcing Kyiv to increasingly turn to its own resources to produce weapons – especially drones.

The mounting problems have soured the mood in Europe, where a recent poll found that only one in ten of respondents in the EU now believe that Ukraine can win the war against Russia, according to a survey commissioned by European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). In November Ukraine’s top general at the time, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, admitted the war had reached a stalemate.

The ammo crisis coupled with Russia’s renewed assault has meant Ukraine’s defences are spread more than thin. The need to redistribute Ukraine's already dwindling air defence systems to protect heavily targeted cities such as Kharkiv close to the Russian border may lead to routine Russian attacks on rear logistics and cities in Ukraine, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said in their April 10 report.

"This further reorganisation of Ukrainian air defences ... will presumably draw from Ukraine's existing arsenal of missiles and launchers, which will stretch Ukraine's already limited air defence capabilities and provide Russian forces with the opportunity to further exploit weakened air defences elsewhere," the ISW wrote.