In the summer of 2021 a team of Ukrainian weapons industry executives visited Washington DC looking for partners to help boost their production of military equipment.
But they weren’t having much luck. “I felt sorry for them. No-one wanted to talk to them,” said Roger Pardo-Maurer, a former senior Pentagon officials and military analyst.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was still months away and the impeachment of Donald Trump - over his alleged efforts to persuade Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to investigate his potential opponent in the upcoming 2020 presidential election, was still fresh in the mind of the political establishment.
Pardo-Maurer agreed to meet the executives from Ukroboronprom. “I was impressed. They told me, ‘We know we don’t have the best stuff, but our stuff is battle tested against Russia,’” he recalled.
“Look at them now,” Pardo-Maurer added.
More than a year after the invasion of Ukraine, the ensuing conflict has turned into a brutal war of attrition with both sides trying to keep up with the enormous demand for munitions as they rapidly deplete their stocks and strain their supply lines.
Indications are that, as with every stage of the invasion so far, it is Ukraine that is gaining the upper hand, despite being far outsized by the invading forces of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Russian military industries: "a critical weakness"
Russia’s defense industry is failing to meet the demands of the “new offensive” the country is planning against Ukraine, according to a UK Ministry of Defense intelligence report last month. It suggested that Russia’s “military-industrial output is becoming “a critical weakness,” in part due to sanctions imposed by the US, Europe and other Ukrainian allies. "Russia has almost certainly already resorted to issuing old munition stock which were previously categorized as unfit for use," it added in another Twitter post this week.
Ukraine owes its advantage to several factors, principally the strong alliance of nations that have lined up to defend it and supply it with military hardware and munitions. Russia’s military has also faced systemic issues of corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency under Putin’s monopoly of power, according to experts.
Putin’s war effort is failing in part due to Russia’s mammoth state-run defense industry producing too few weapons, and those it does turn out cannot match sophisticated Western arms, according to Zoltan Barany, a military scholar with the University of Texas at Austin. Despite a major reform effort over the last decade to modernize Russia’s defense industry and transform the military into a modern fighting force, it appears that the Kremlin has come up short.
“As the world can now see, efforts to overhaul the bloated, ill-equipped post-Soviet military have not produced a twenty-first–century fighting force that can match the world’s best armies or counter their capabilities,” he wrote in a recent article, ‘ Why is Russia losing the war. Why Putin’s military failed,’ published by the Journal of Democracy in January.
Russian military facing it's first serious test in decades
The Kremlin has deployed its military in recent years in places like Syria, Chechnya and Georgia, but “Russia has never faced a western-trained army,” said Erich de la Fuente, a Russia and Ukraine expert at Florida International University (FIU).
“They have not really faced a serious contender. So, no-one really knew about the level of fragility we are seeing now from Russia. A lot of weapons they have don’t match up with what we have,” added de la Fuente.
On the other hand, Ukraine began its own, far more successful, major reform effort with western support, beginning after 2014 when Russian forces seized Crimea.
U.S.-supplied long-range weapons like HIMARS artillery have given Ukraine an edge on the battlefield, allowing it to hit targets well beyond its previous ability. Modern U.S. and European anti-tank missiles proved crucial in repelling the Russian advance in the early stages of the invasion. Soon Ukraine will begin to receive German, British and American tanks.
Fort its part, Ukroboronprom was forced to relocate its operations after Russia destroyed some of its facilities early in the invasion. Even so, the state-owned company says it has managed to increase production of ammunition of various calibers in cooperation with several NATO countries.
Both sides need more ammunition - faster
Commanders on both sides have warned lately that they need more ammunition to be able to hold the front lines in the east of the country where Russia is mounting an offensive to break down staunch Ukrainian resistance around the besieged and town of Bakhmut.
Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksiy Reznikov recently warned that his country’s forces are only firing a fifth of the rounds their artillery systems are capable of firing due to the lack of supplies, according to a letter he wrote that was obtained by the Financial Times. Reznikov stated that Ukraine was firing 110,000 155mm-calibre shells a month, a quarter of the amount used by Russia. In order to succeed on the battlefield, he said his forces needed to triple the available number of shells, to 356,400 shells per month.
Russian chief of the Wagner mercenary brigade, Yevgeny Prigozhin has also publicly expressed his worry about shortages of ammunition reaching his men fighting in Bakhmud. In a video, Prigozhin said new ammunition deliveries labelled as produced in 2023 were arriving but it wasn’t enough. "I am worried about ammunition and shell shortages not only for the Wagner private military company but for all units of the Russian army,” he said.
Prigozhin also said he needed troops reinforcements, an indication of the high casualties Russia has suffered so far, in excess of 200,000 dead and wounded.
Russian military enlistment offices have the administrative capacity to raise only 130,000 conscripts per six-month cycle, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which provided daily reports on progress in the war. It added that Russia’s military command is failing to properly equip its forces despite forces increasingly conducting close combat in Ukraine.
British intelligence highlighted a wave of at least 80 long-range Russian strikes against Ukraine on Thursday with cruise missiles as an example of Moscow’s supply ammunition issues. It was the first major wave of long-range strikes since February 16 and the largest since December. “The interval between waves of strikes is probably growing because Russia now needs to stockpile a critical mass of newly produced missiles directly from industry,” according to the British government.
Sanctions impacting Russian military logistics
Global sanctions against Russia have also given Ukraine an asymmetrical advantage in military industrial capacity, according to Mick Ryan, a military strategist and retired major general in the Australian armed forces.
The sanctions forced Putin to take over Russian factories and impose a wartime economy, while Ukraine has been able to tap the resources of dozens of allied countries. “This has proved to be a more durable model than Putin expected before the war. It has been one of several surprises that Ukraine and its Western partners have delivered to the Russians in the past year,” he wrote this month in an article for The Sydney Morning Herald.
The United States has committed about $80 billion in aid to Ukraine, including nearly $50 billion in military aid, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, which tracks global spending on aid to Ukraine.
Europe seeks to increase military capacity for Ukraine war effort
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, outlined a long term plan this week to increase its defense industry manufacturing capacity in order to supply Ukraine with one million rounds of heavy artillery ammunition, which he hopes will be agreed at a meeting of defense and foreign ministers on March 20th.
The plan includes one billion euros for a new support package for the purchase of 155mm and 152mm artillery as well as another one billion euros to help refill the artillery stocks of member states who are supplying arms to Ukraine.
“Members will be encouraged to dig further in their stocks if they receive the guarantee that they can replenished their stock, then they will be more ready to support Ukraine,” Borrell told a press conference.
The veteran Spanish politician said that the EU member states needed to adopt a “war mentality” to meet the challenge. “For Ukraine to win the peace, Ukraine needs to win the war,” he said.
“Time is of the essence […] we need to deliver more but we need to deliver faster,” he added.
Russia turns to Iran, North Korea and China
U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia have also targeted people and firms allegedly involved in supporting Russia’s military during the war in Ukraine.
The sanctions have cut off Russia’s access to the Western electronics that are key to advanced modern weapons as well as funds to invest in new, more modern weapons factories. As a result, Putin has had to turn to less technologically-advanced countries such as Iran and North Korea for military supplies.
“Military intelligence has shown that a shortage of components in Russia as a result of sanctions is already likely affecting their ability to produce equipment for export, such as armored vehicles, attack helicopters and air defense systems, the British Foreign Office said.
China is considering sending Moscow ammunition and artillery, according to U.S. officials, potentially changing the balance of forces in the coming months. Beijing has accused the United States of "disinformation" over the claims and told Washington not to interfere with its relationship with Moscow.
Is it too late to Russia to recover initiative?
Although Russia’s military budget has increased more than four times since the 1990s, to about $65 billion, that is still less than a tenth of annual U.S. defense spending, Barany wrote.
Ironically, the conflict with Ukraine in 2014 cost Russian its longstanding ties to important Ukrainian weapons producers.
Russia’s state Armament Program commissioned the manufacture or refurbishing of 70 percent of the military’s weaponry over the last decade, according to Barany. It developed new artillery, introduced some highly accurate cruise missiles, delivered several hundred new tanks, and added almost five-hundred new fighter jets armed with radar-guided missiles.
But, Russia’s centralized and inefficient bureaucracy continues to hamper quality control in its factories and sanctions have deprived Putin of funds to replace outdated machine tools and pay for research and development.
Large-scale corruption results in hundreds of millions of dollars disappearing. A Russian military prosecutor recently admitted that about a fifth of the Defense Ministry’s budget was stolen; other officials said that it could be as high as two-fifths, Barany noted.
“The systemic and structural challenges that beset Russia’s defense industry are not going away,” wrote Barany. “Russian arms makers are a long way from producing weapons that can compete with Western weapons in technological sophistication and general quality. Large-scale building of precision-guided munitions, targeting systems, and heavy-strike long-range drones is beyond the reach of Russian industry,” he concluded.