Ukraine war: Shell shortages force us to limit firing, Ukrainian troops tell BBC

Ukrainian artillery near Bakhmut
Image caption,Ukraine’s gunners have to use ammunition rounds sparingly, as there is a shortage of artillery shells

With a major military aid package stalled in the US Congress there have been dire warnings about Ukraine’s long term ability to win the war against Russia. The BBC visited the front lines in eastern Ukraine – where ammunition is running low – to hear how concern over allies’ support is affecting troops.

Short presentational grey line

A crackling sound on the radio sends instructions to artillerymen waiting inside a US-made M-109 Paladin howitzer.

“We have a new target.”

Immediately, the entire crew springs into action. The engine roars. One of the gunners pushes a projectile into the barrel. The gun is loaded.

“Fire!” he shouts, and pulls the cord. A deafening explosion shakes the armoured machine.

They fire just one round, and then wait for the next command.

But after a prolonged silence, the same crackling voice on the radio gives them an order: “Stand down and cover the gun.”

Ukraine’s gunners have to use ammunition rounds sparingly, as there is a shortage of artillery shells.

Their gun, like most artillery systems provided by the West, fires 155-mm projectiles that are also supplied by foreign partners.

The problem is, Ukraine’s troops need more rounds than their allies can currently give them.

Without ammunition, Ukraine won’t just have to stop trying to recapture land: it won’t be able to stop Russia’s attacks and could ultimately lose this war.

Image caption,Igor and his men in the 93rd Brigade are fending off daily Russian assaults in eastern Ukraine

“Right now, the enemy is trying to break through [our defence lines]. Each day, there are at least two attacks, but we repel them all,” says Igor, a platoon commander from the 93rd Brigade. His crew has been on watch since 05:00.

Igor’s unit defends areas near the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, which Russia seized last May after months of bloody, brutal fighting.

The gunners here are very pleased with their newly-arrived Paladins donated by western partners. The howitzers are kept hidden under tents and half-buried in the ground, due to the growing threat of enemy drones.

This winter is not going to be quiet on the front line, says Sashko, one of the crew members, as he picks up an artillery shell.

He carefully carries the 43-kg explosive round, trying not to slip on the frozen ground.

Image caption,The winter weather is making life on the front line even harder for soldiers like Sashko

Frequent explosions in the distance are a reminder that the front line is less than 10km (six miles) away.

“This [Russian push] will last at least until the presidential elections in Russia,” says Sashko. He argues that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin needs a victory on the battlefield in Ukraine to boost his campaign at home ahead of the vote in March 2024.

While Ukraine’s soldiers are highly-motivated by the fight to liberate their own country, this is one of the most challenging times for its military since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. And not because of the gloomy weather.

A lack of major progress in the much-hyped counteroffensive has made Ukraine’s soldiers realise that the war will drag on for much longer. They know a difficult winter is ahead of them. Troops told the BBC they need support more than ever to change the tide of the war.

“If there is no military support from the West, then things will be really bad,” Sashko says. “First Russia will seize Ukraine, then it will be the turn of Baltic states, Poland. I think Russia will not stop here.”

Inside Paladin
Image caption,Ukrainian troops know the war is not going to end soon

Ukrainian authorities recently claimed that they had received less than a third of the one million artillery shells the EU promised to provide.

Last summer, the US agreed to send controversial cluster munitions due to the shortage of those 155-mm shells. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky also acknowledged that supplies of that type of ammunition had fallen.

A Ukrainian drone operator who directs artillery fire on the southern front line and who requested not to be named told the BBC that the number of artillery engagements from the Ukrainian side in the south had dramatically dropped over the past few months.

“During the peak period of the counter-offensive and even just a few months ago, the ratio between Russian and our artillery fire was largely 1:1 or bigger in our advantage. Now, we fire one round for every four or five rounds that Russia fires.”

The situation may become critical if Western states cut their support and the aid dries up, the soldiers say.

“Without ammunition, this will just be scrap metal,” Sashko says, pointing at the American howitzer. “It is a nice machine – we can drive it, but we won’t be able to fight with it.”

Image caption,Ukraine tries to hide its Western supplied artillery from Russian drones

The situation on the front line has turned into what the Ukrainian military describes as a positional war, where permanent and fortified front lines make the role of artillery even more important – and the supplies of ammunition vital.

Stocks for old Soviet artillery, that use different types of rounds, are falling at an even faster rate than supplies for western artillery shells. Stockpiles of those rounds sent from allied countries are almost depleted, and production of new ones is limited, soldiers say.

“We do have [an] ammunition shortage,” admits Gorn, battery commander in the 22nd Brigade. “If we had more shells, we would have gotten far beyond Klishiivka [a village next to Bakhmut] by now. Whatever amount we get, we try to fire accurately.”

His gunners use the old Soviet 2S1 Gvozdika system, which is not known for being accurate. They improve their efficiency with the help of drones that direct fire. The crew loads the gun with Soviet 122-mm rounds after a target is identified.

But they have to wait for hours for the command to open fire – too long and too risky for the BBC crew to hang around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *