Friday, 17 March 2023 03:14

What to know after Day 386 of Russia-Ukraine war

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The West getting nervous about ammunition shortages for Ukraine

Ukraine’s allies are growing increasingly concerned about the country’s dwindling ammunition supply and production shortfalls as fighting against Russia intensifies in Bakhmut. For this reason, the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group—which includes around 50 countries—hosted a virtual meeting Wednesday to discuss how to make sure Ukraine’s military gets enough of the ammunition it needs.

Western officials have been sounding the alarm for months. In February, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “The current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production. This puts our defense industries under strain.”

To date, the U.S. has supplied Ukraine with more than 1 million 155-millimeter shells, the NATO-standard artillery shell. The U.S. army is planning to boost the current production rate of about 14,000 155-millimeter howitzer shells per month to 20,000 by this spring and up to 90,000 by 2025.

For their part, E.U. countries have provided Ukraine with about 350,000 155-millimeter shells in total, according to POLITICO.

But these deliveries have come at the price of both the U.S. and Europe’s own ammunition supplies. “They’ve got to work out how much they’re willing to sacrifice their own stocks and defensive ability in order to help Ukraine,” says Trevor Taylor, professor emeritus at Cranfield University in the U.K., who heads a research program on defense and industry at the Royal United Services Institute think tank.

Despite these concerns, Western officials are calling for greater supplies.

“The most important, pressing issue today for the Ukrainian army is to have a continuous flow of ammunition,” E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said last month. “If we fail on that, really, the result of the war is in danger.”

Borrell said Russian forces fired about 50,000 rounds of artillery each day, compared to about 6,000-7,000 from Ukraine—and that the gap should be closed.

Estonia, which shares a border with Russia, is pushing the E.U. and NATO allies to provide 1 million artillery shells.

The E.U. appears to be closing in on a €2 billion ($2.12 billion) deal to restock ammunition supplies for Ukraine and also refill countries’ stocks, POLITICO reported. Half will be dedicated to partly reimburse countries that are already in a position to donate ammunition from their stockpiles. The other half will be designated for countries to jointly purchase new ammunition to buy at scale, allowing for cheaper overall costs.

But experts tell TIME that the danger for Ukraine is not that they will run out of ammunition but that their supplies will be lowered to an extent that will limit their approach on the battlefield. “Armies don’t run out of ammunition, ammunition supplies get lowered—and as they get lowered, armies have to shoot at higher priority targets and not shoot at lower priority targets,” says Mark F. Cancian, a retired Marine Corps reserves colonel and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Strong offensives often require a huge stockpile of ammunition. “In World War I, armies would spend months stockpiling ammunition around a certain area; they would build rail lines, typically, to start to bring in artillery,” says Ian Williams, deputy director of CSIS’s Missile Defense Project.

But experts add that Ukraine should still be able to effectively defend itself. “Holding ground is easier than winning ground,” says Taylor.

Ukraine is currently holding off Russian advances in the eastern city of Bakhmut, which has intensified since January. While Ukraine has expelled Russian forces from Kherson, it is still facing intense shelling from tanks and artillery there. Strikes continue to hit Kharkiv, too.

“The biggest bottleneck right now is production,” says CSIS’s Williams. The defense industry is typically not able to scale up production so rapidly; it is often operating to meet the demands of home governments. NATO’s Stoltenberg has noted that some orders placed today may take two and a half years to arrive.

In the U.S., for example, “private companies aren’t going to produce things unless someone’s going to buy them and military budgets are under strain—no matter how big they get; there’s always competing interests,” says Williams. Many countries would choose to invest in lighter types of forces, drones, intelligence and reconnaissance methods, or missiles, he explains. “We don’t have a Soviet style defense industry where we just keep producing shells, whether we need them or not.”

While tanks, missiles, and fighting vehicles have been key for Ukraine to resist Russian offensives, essential ammunition is just as important, if not more, experts note. “This is very much an attritional war with a fairly static frontline,” Williams says. “That kind of combat tends to be where you have two sides that are increasingly dug in, which becomes a very intensive vacuum for ammunition.

** Chinese companies shipping rifles, body armor to Russia

Chinese companies, including one connected to the government in Beijing, have sent Russian entities 1,000 assault rifles and other equipment that could be used for military purposes, including drone parts and body armor, according to trade and customs data obtained by POLITICO.

The shipments took place between June and December 2022, according to the data provided by ImportGenius, a customs data aggregator.

China North Industries Group Corporation Limited, one of the country’s largest state-owned defense contractors, sent the rifles in June 2022 to a Russian company called Tekhkrim that also does business with the Russian state and military. The CQ-A rifles, modeled off of the M16 but tagged as “civilian hunting rifles” in the data, have been reported to be in use by paramilitary police in Chinaand by armed forces from the Philippines to South Sudanand Paraguay.

Russian entities also received 12 shipments of drone parts by Chinese companies and over 12 tons of Chinese body armor, routed via Turkey, in late 2022, according to the data.

Although the customs data does not show that Beijing is selling a large amount of weapons to Moscow specifically to aid its war effort, it reveals that China is supplying Russian companies with previously unreported “dual-use” equipment — commercial items that could also be used on the battlefield in Ukraine.

It is the first confirmation that China is sending rifles and body armor to Russian companies, and shows that drones and drone parts are still being sent despite promises from at least one company that said it would suspend business in Russia and Ukraine to ensure its products did not aid the war effort.

The confirmation of these shipments comes as leaders in the U.S. and Europe warn Beijing against supporting Russia’s efforts in Ukraine. Western officials have said in recent weeks that China is considering sending weapons to Russia’s military, a move that could alter the nature of the fighting on the ground in Ukraine, tipping it in Russia’s favor. Officials are also concerned that some of the dual-use material could also be used by Russia to equip reinforcements being deployed to Ukraine at a time when Moscow is in desperate need of supplies.

Da-Jiang Innovations Science & Technology Co., also known as DJI, sent drone parts — like batteries and cameras — via the United Arab Emirates to a small Russian distributor in November and December 2022. DJI is a Chinese company that has been under U.S. Treasury sanctions since 2021 for providing the Chinese state with drones to surveil the Uyghur minority in the western region of Xinjiang.

In addition to drones, Russia has for months relied on other countries, including China, for navigation equipment, satellite imagery, vehicle components and other raw materials to help prop up President Vladimir Putin’s year-old war on Ukraine.

It’s currently unclear if Russia is using any of the rifles included in the shipment data on the battlefield — Tekhkrim, the Russian company, did not respond to an emailed request for comment. But the DJI drones have been spotted on the battlefield for months. DJI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The National Security Council did not comment on the record for this story. The Chinese embassy in Washington said in a statement that Beijing is “committed to promoting talks for peace” in Ukraine.

“China did not create the crisis. It is not a party to the crisis, and has not provided weapons to either side of the conflict,” said embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu.

Asked about the findings in the data obtained by POLITICO, Poland’s Ambassador to the EU Andrzej Sadoś said that “due to the potential very serious consequences, such information should be verified immediately.”

Although Western sanctions have hampered Moscow’s ability to import everything from microchips to tear gas, Russia’s still able to buy supplies that support its war effort from “friendly” countries that aren’t following the West’s new rules, like China or the Gulf countries.

“Some commercial products, like drones or even microchips, could be adapted. They can transform from a simple benign civilian product to a lethal and military product,” said Sam Bendett, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center of Naval Analyses Russia Studies in Washington, noting that dual-use items could help Russia advance on the battlefield.

Experts say it is difficult to track whether dual-use items shipped from China are being sold to buyers who intend to use the technology for civilian purposes or for military means.

“The challenge with dual-use items is that the export control system we have has to consider both the commercial sales possibilities as well as the military use of certain items,” said Zach Cooper, former assistant to the deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism at the National Security Council.

In cases where the Kremlin craves specific technology only produced in say the U.S., EU or Japan, there are wily ways for Moscow to evade sanctions, which include buying equipment from middlemen located in countries with cordial trade relations with both the West and Russia.

Russia managed to import more than 800 tons of body armor worth around $10 million in December last year, according to the customs data from ImportGenius. Those bulletproof vests were manufactured by Turkish company Ariteks and most were imported straight from Turkey, although some of the shipments arrived to Russia via the United Arab Emirates. Russia also imported some body armor from Chinese company Xinxing Guangzhou Import & Export Co.

Trade data also shows that Russian state defense company Rosoboronexport has imported microchips, thermal vision devices and spare parts like a gas turbine engine from a variety of countries ranging from China to Serbia and Myanmar since 2022.

Dual-use items could also be a way for China to quietly increase its assistance to Moscow while avoiding reprisals officials in Washington and Europe have been threatening in recent weeks if China goes ahead with sending weapons to the Russian military.

Most recently, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told reporters last week that there would be “consequences” if China sent weapons to Russia, although he also said that he’s seen “no evidence” that Beijing is considering delivering arms to Moscow.

“We are now in a stage where we are making clear that this should not happen, and I’m relatively optimistic that we will be successful with our request in this case,” he said.

Among the military items China has been considering shipping to Russia are drones, ammunition and other small arms, according to a list that has circulated inside the administration and on Capitol Hill for months, according to a person who read that document. And intelligence briefed to officials in Washington, on Capitol Hill and to U.S. allies across the world in the last month, suggests Beijing could take the step to ship weapons to Russia.

"We do see [China] providing assistance to Russia in the context of the conflict. And we see them in a situation in which they've become increasingly uncomfortable about the level of assistance and not looking to do it as publicly as might otherwise occur and given the reputational costs associated with it,” Avril Haines, the U.S. director of national intelligence, said in a congressional hearing March 8. “That is a very real concern and the degree of how close they get and how much assistance they're providing is something we watch very carefully."

As data about dual-use item shipments to Russia becomes available, Western countries are expected to ramp up efforts to quell these flows.

“We've already started to see sanctions against people [moving] military material to Russia. I'm sure we're going to be seeing the EU and other countries target those people that are helping a lot of this material to get to Russia,” said James Byrne from the Royal United Services Institute, a U.K.-based defense think tank.

Beijing continues to deny that it is ramping up support for Russia in Ukraine. However, several of its top officials have recently traveled to Moscow. President Xi Jinping is expected to make an appearance there in the coming weeks. China recently presented a 12-point peace proposal for the war in Ukraine, though it was criticized by western leaders for its ambiguity and for its lack of details about the need for the withdrawal of Russian troops.

** Mortars, artillery and small arms fire as battle for Bakhmut rages

From a mortar position behind a ridge beyond which frontline Ukrainian and Russian troops face off outside the hotly contested city of Bakhmut, a crew adjusted its weapons before firing off seven rounds.

The impact of each could be heard in the distance seconds later, while the constant boom of outgoing and incoming artillery fire filled the air on Thursday in attritional warfare that has marked the last several months in the area.

The crackle of small arms fire was also clearly audible some 1.5-2.0 km from the frontlines, not far from a road that leads from Bakhmut west into the next town Chasiv Yar - a vital exit route for Ukrainian forces who are in danger of being encircled.

"The situation (at the front) is quite difficult, but stable," said Myron, a soldier in the 80th Air Assault Brigade who declined to give his full name.

"The enemy constantly attempts to attack us, and we defend our positions quite effectively," the 37-year-old told Reuters in an underground bunker at the end of a zig-zag trench where the mortar unit sleeps, eats and stays warm.

"We've been standing here for quite a long time already, and our brigade hasn't given up any positions."

Since a major Ukrainian counter-offensive last year, the war has settled into a grinding conflict of incremental gains along a frontline stretching from the Russian border in the north to the annexed Crimean peninsula in the south.

Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and wounded on both sides, and while Russia appears to be in the ascendancy in key areas including Bakhmut, progress is slow and costly and Kyiv says it is determined to hold out.

Ukraine is urging its allies in the West to supply more modern military hardware and ammunition - a vital ingredient in what has become a fierce artillery duel.

Reuters reporters heard dozens of shells being fired from Ukrainian positions near Chasiv Yar and Bakhmut on Thursday alone.

Ihor, a 36-year-old soldier at the mortar position, said they had been targeted by air strikes, mortar fire and tank shelling.

"You don't always check on what's flying over your head," he added, crouching in a deep trench.

In the next door town of Chasiv Yar, a volunteer evacuation team drove a minibus through potholed lanes between small homes, many of them in ruins as artillery shelling shook the ground.

Dozens of mainly elderly residents are still living there, and about 20 gathered at a water tanker to fill up containers to take home.

One woman who had arranged to be taken out of the increasingly dangerous town refused to leave when volunteers came to collect her, saying she was not ready. On the side of the next street a man prepared a fire to make shashlik while a woman sat nearby chatting.


US expects Ukrainian counteroffensive in May

The US expects Kiev to launch a counterattack against Russian troops in May, using weapons from NATO countries, Politico reported on Wednesday, citing unnamed American officials.

US military aid packages “going back four or five months have been geared toward what Ukraine needs for this counteroffensive,” one source cited by the outlet said on condition of anonymity.

Kiev is preparing the operation even as its manpower and resources are being drained, Politico reports, by its continued clinging to the Donbass city of Artyomovsk, which it calls Bakhmut. The city, which senior US officials assessed has only symbolic significance, became the scene of some of the most intensive fighting between Russia and Ukraine this year.

While both sides reportedly suffered significant casualties fighting for Artyomovsk, Kiev lost some of its most experienced troops, Politico said. US officials have suggested that Ukraine should pull out of the city, which President Vladimir Zelensky declared a fortress. With the advice unheeded, America is now urging Ukrainian troops to conserve artillery munitions, the report explained.

According to the outlet, Kiev is yet to settle on a strategy for its counteroffensive. One scenario involving a push across the Dnieper River near the city of Kherson is “not realistic,” US officials believe, since Ukraine does not have the manpower for an amphibious operation of that kind. The second one would require advancing from the north in an attempt to cut off Russian troops from Crimea.

The US has been stressing that it was up to Zelensky and the Ukrainian leadership to decide how exactly they would conduct a military operation. But senior American generals hosted Ukrainian officials in Wiesbaden, Germany this month to help them with wargaming the upcoming operation, Politico's report notes. There has also been an effort to train Ukrainian troops in NATO tactics to replenish battlefield losses.

Russia believes that the Ukrainian conflict is a US proxy war against it, with Ukrainian soldiers serving as cannon fodder. Moscow said Washington prevented Kiev from signing a peace agreement with Russia in the first months of the conflict, telling Zelensky to continue fighting instead.

** Ukraine also can’t intercept Russian Iskander-M, S-300 missiles, not just Kinzhal’s

The Ukrainian armed forces can’t shoot down Russian ballistic missiles such as the Iskander-M, S-300 air defense missiles and Smerch rockets, in addition to hypersonic Kinzhal and Kh-22 missiles, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yury Ignat said in an interview aired on Thursday.

"We don’t shoot down ballistic missiles, for example Iskander-M," he said in the interview with Ukraine’s 24 channel. "Also, unfortunately, we don’t have the capability to intercept rockets fired by multiple launch rocket systems such as Smerch."

"All these missiles fly fast, along a ballistic trajectory and essentially swoop down on a target with a huge speed," he continued. "It takes specialized air defense missile systems to shoot down something that’s already falling."

"We also treat S-300 air defense guided missiles as ballistic ones," the spokesman went on to say.

Ukraine also is unable to shoot down Oniks supersonic cruise missiles.

"There’s also no capability to shoot down Kh-31P specialized air-borne anti-radar missiles and similar air-to-surface missiles with a shorter range," Ignat went on to say.

He said that the Ukrainian air defense system can counter only those missiles that its equipment has specifications for.

"The main systems that we have in service are Buk-M1 and S-300," he said, adding there is a "critical need" for more advanced air defense systems.

Ignat said Ukraine has been unable to shoot down a single Kh-22 supersonic cruise missile as its speed is so high that an S-300 is unable to fly quickly enough for interception.

"In order to shoot down the Kh-22 Ukraine need a missile system that can operate automatically, meaning it will make decisions itself, without any humans involved, utilizing the latest radar and an advanced missile," he said.

But even that wouldn’t be enough.

Earlier, Ignat stated that the Ukrainian national air defense system is not capable of shooting down Russian Kinzhal and Kh-22 hypersonic missiles. According to the Washington Post, Russia's use of Kinzhal hypersonic missiles in Ukraine has shown that the US and its allies do not possess similar weapons that are as hard to intercept, even with advanced missile defense systems. According to some Russian and Western experts, there’s no guarantee that even advanced air defense systems can shoot down a missile fired by the latest Russian system.