Is Russia running out of weapons?

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“Soh let me tell Putin tonight what his generals and ministers seem too afraid to say,” Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, Britain’s defense chief, said on December 14: “He has a huge shortage of artillery Russia.” Ten days earlier, Avril Haines, America’s top intelligence officer, had offered a similar diagnosis. Is Russia running out of shells?

Western officials have been talking about the Russian military crisis for months. In September they said that Russia had turned to North Korea for replenishment. In November, Lloyd Austin, America’s defense secretary, spoke of a “massive shortage”. At a December 12 briefing, a senior US defense official said that at current levels of deployment, “full service” tube and rocket artillery weapons could be maintained until early 2023.

Others disagree. On December 9, Colonel Margo Grosberg, head of Estonian defense intelligence, said that Russia had about 10m shells and the ability to produce 3.4m more within a year. At the height of the fire, this summer in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, Russia was using about 20,000 rounds a day, he said, meaning the country has enough ammunition ” to fight for at least a year, if not longer”. In a recent interview with The Economist General Valery Zaluzhny, a senior official in Ukraine, warned that Russia was preparing for a new attack this spring, which could include another attempt on Kyiv. “Arms are being prepared,” said General Zaluzhny. “Not very good stuff, but still.”

There are several explanations for these different observations. One difference is in the type of weapon that is counted. America’s description of “fully serviceable” weapons could refer to that which is within its expiration date, properly stored and does not require refurbishing before use, suggests Michael Kofman from CNA, a think tank. Estonia’s account appears to include a wider range of orders that may be unreliable or unsafe, he says – though not necessarily ineffective.

Russian weapons are often stored in poor conditions and much longer than they would otherwise be NATO armies. If the Pentagon is to be believed, Russia is firing some shells that were produced in the early 1980s. “You load the launcher, and you cross your fingers and hope it goes off,” said an American defense official. (Ukraine draws on old shells too.)

It is also not clear how much ammunition Russia lost and gained in ten months of war. Its rate of expenditure may be fairly estimated from observed fire. But it is a little more difficult to calculate how much Russia has lost in Ukraine’s long-range rocket attacks on its storage facilities, which were particularly effective this summer. The rate at which Russia can replenish these stocks is particularly difficult.

Some metrics, such as steel output, offer clues. But they can also be deceptive. In September Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSSIA). American and British intelligence both say that Russia’s production rate is severely limited.

In addition to making shells, Russia can import them. Belarus has donated large quantities of weapons from its Soviet-era stockpiles, according to Western officials. But a lot of that is likely to be sub-par. In his speech, Admiral Radakin accused North Korea of ​​“trying to smuggle artillery shells into Russia. ” But that supply is not great at the moment, according to Ms Haines.

The amount of artillery fire in Russia has decreased since the massive artillery barrage of the summer. In theory, if his lack of ammunition is as dire as some say, his rate of fire should drop further in the coming months. In that case, barring an unexpected spurt in production or a generous sponsor, the Russian army will not be able to launch a massive shell-hungry offensive of the kind that General Zaluzhny is anticipating. But William Owen, who was a former soldier and now its editor Military Strategy Magazine, warns against such rosy calculations. Even though some Russian shells are duds, plenty will work. “You can never go wrong by assuming that the Russians have the weapons they think they need,” he said. To do otherwise is “absolutely pointless and incredibly dangerous.”

Read more about our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis.

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