Russia Is Running Low on Ammo

The United States is wondering if Russia has enough artillery to keep up its war in Ukraine.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Military cadets take part in celebrations marking the Day of Missile Forces and Artillery.
Military cadets take part in celebrations marking the Day of Missile Forces and Artillery.
Military cadets take part in celebrations marking the Day of Missile Forces and Artillery at the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg on Nov. 19. OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP via Getty Images

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT—Russia is experiencing significant shortages of artillery that are impacting its fire-focused military to carry on the fight in its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday.

In a sign of ongoing logistics struggles that have plagued Russia throughout the war, in recent weeks the Kremlin has continued outreach to Iran and North Korea to try to get more artillery munitions to take the fight to Ukrainians, especially as Western sanctions and export controls have bitten into Russia’s ability to make precision-guided rounds. But the situation, first worsened by Ukrainian targeting, has become more dire as Russian troops have lost nearly half of the territory gained in the early days of the full-scale invasion, mostly in Kharkiv and Kherson.

“We see them experiencing significant shortages of artillery munitions and reaching out to Iran and North Korea to get help from them,” Austin told reporters aboard the E-4B aircraft traveling back from Cambodia after a five-day trip that covered Canada and Southeast Asia, including a meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. Austin, a retired four-star general who last led U.S. Central Command during the early days of the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2015 and 2016, said the dire shortages have impacted Russia’s military approach, which is “to use vast amounts of artillery and then, at the eleventh hour, maneuver.”

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT—Russia is experiencing significant shortages of artillery that are impacting its fire-focused military to carry on the fight in its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday.

In a sign of ongoing logistics struggles that have plagued Russia throughout the war, in recent weeks the Kremlin has continued outreach to Iran and North Korea to try to get more artillery munitions to take the fight to Ukrainians, especially as Western sanctions and export controls have bitten into Russia’s ability to make precision-guided rounds. But the situation, first worsened by Ukrainian targeting, has become more dire as Russian troops have lost nearly half of the territory gained in the early days of the full-scale invasion, mostly in Kharkiv and Kherson.

“We see them experiencing significant shortages of artillery munitions and reaching out to Iran and North Korea to get help from them,” Austin told reporters aboard the E-4B aircraft traveling back from Cambodia after a five-day trip that covered Canada and Southeast Asia, including a meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe. Austin, a retired four-star general who last led U.S. Central Command during the early days of the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in 2015 and 2016, said the dire shortages have impacted Russia’s military approach, which is “to use vast amounts of artillery and then, at the eleventh hour, maneuver.”

“For that kind of operation, it requires a lot of munitions,” he added. “I’m not sure they have those kinds of munitions to be able to support that going forward.” Russia has already struggled to restock critically low supplies of precision-guided munitions because of Western restrictions on exporting microchips, forcing the Kremlin to rely more heavily on Iranian-made drones.

U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, better known as HIMARS, which the Biden administration began sending to Kyiv this summer, have helped Ukrainian troops degrade Russia’s artillery stockpiles, Austin said, in a systematic targeting campaign over the summer and fall that saw Ukraine systematically go after supply nodes and munitions storage points. “That didn’t have an immediate impact, but over time, weeks, you saw the Russians begin to struggle a bit with the amount of ammunition that they had available,” Austin said.

Now U.S. officials are questioning whether Russia has enough artillery shells left in its national stockpiles to continue to prosecute the fight—and enough bodies. Either scenario would leave Russia at a difficult starting point to begin a spring offensive to reclaim Ukrainian territory that the Kremlin insists is part of Russia after a trumped-up annexation referendum in occupied territories earlier in the fall.

While the U.S. Defense Department has seen no signs that Russia has begun planning for a second troop mobilization—as Ukrainian Defense Intelligence first reported—American officials are looking to see whether Russia has enough ammunition to go back on the offensive shortly or whether it is looking for a break to recuperate. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said this month that Russia had recently pursued talks, a possible effort to freeze the conflict, but Ukrainian military officials have insisted they’re ready to continue fighting through winter.

And it’s not clear how much impact another Russian effort to surge more forces onto the battlefield could have. Russia’s mobilized forces, often taken from the ranks of civilians, “receive very little training and in some cases have little or no equipment and were put into the fight right away,” Austin said. “Many of those troops struggled and many of them died as a result of that.”

But the ammo shortages in the war appear to go both ways. Both Ukraine and NATO-allied countries are also in critical need of resupply after nearly nine months of historic rates of artillery exchanges between the warring sides since Russia launched its invasion in February. Even though the Biden administration is facing criticism that Ukraine isn’t getting enough weapons to push Russia further back, the aid continues to flow, at about half the rate of the summer months.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that it would send $400 million more in military aid to Ukraine, including ammunition for air defense systems, HIMARS, precision-guided artillery systems, and extra mortar rounds. Also on the way are 200 generators, which are aimed at reducing stress on Ukraine’s power grid from Russian strikes, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters traveling with Austin.

The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, Undersecretary of Defense for Sustainment and Acquisition William LaPlante, has also met with armament directors from more than 40 countries to talk about expanding weapons production lines to restock Western arsenals and to support Ukraine.

But even as the United States has tried to urge countries to cut ties with Russia, in Southeast Asia, where Austin spent the days before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday in Indonesia and at an expanded defense ministers’ meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia, it was clear that some were reluctant to do so.

While Austin didn’t interact with Russian Col. Gen. Alexander Fomin, sent to the conference in a relatively nondescript three-car motorcade in lieu of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, others were happy to. As the ASEAN gathering in Cambodia closed, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto sought out and warmly greeted Fomin with a handshake, just 48 hours after standing with Austin in Jakarta and saying little—if anything—to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Yet just one day before the nine-month mark of Russia’s full-scale invasion, Austin marveled at how far the once great power had fallen, reduced to pleading with Iran and North Korea for backup in its war on Ukraine. 

“That’s something that you never thought you’d see from a country like Russia [with] vast capabilities,” he said.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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