Ukraine burns ammunition in Bakhmut, risking future fights Liberal-news

The Ukrainian military is firing thousands of artillery shells a day as it tries to hold the eastern city of Bakhmut, a pace that US and European officials say is unsustainable and could jeopardize a planned spring campaign they hope will prove decisive.

The shelling has been so intense that the Pentagon expressed concern to Kiev recently after several days of non-stop artillery fire, two US officials said, highlighting the tension between Ukraine’s decision to defend Bakhmut at all costs and its hopes of recapturing territory in the spring. One of those officials said the Americans warned Ukraine not to waste ammunition at a key time.

With so much at stake in a Ukrainian counteroffensive, the United States and Britain are preparing to send thousands of Soviet and NATO-type artillery shells and rockets to help shore up supplies for an upcoming Ukrainian offensive.

But a senior US defense official described it as a “last ditch effort” because Ukraine’s allies don’t have enough munitions to keep up with Ukraine and their stocks are critically low. Western manufacturers are ramping up production, but it will be many months before new supplies begin to meet demand.

This has put Kiev in an increasingly dangerous position: its troops are likely to have a significant opportunity this year to go on the offensive, push back Russian forces, and retake land that was occupied after the invasion began on last year. And they will likely have to do so while dealing with persistent ammunition shortages.

Adding to the uncertainty, Ukrainian casualties have been so severe that commanders will have to decide whether to send units to defend Bakhmut or use them in a spring offensive, several of the officials said. Many of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Artillery has become the defining weapon of warfare in Ukraine, including howitzers and mortars. Both sides have powerful anti-aircraft systems, so the fighting takes place mainly on the ground. As the year-long war continues, a major factor in who perseveres is which side has enough ammunition and troops.

It is estimated that more than 200,000 Russians have been wounded or killed since the start of the war. The Ukrainian figure is more than 100,000. Russia is able to recruit forces from its population, which is about three times that of Ukraine, but both sides face ammunition shortages. Russian formations are firing more ammunition than Ukrainian ones.

“We need shells for mortars,” a Ukrainian soldier fighting in Bakhmut said in recent days. He said that his battalion had not been resupplied. A Ukrainian tank commander, whose T-80 tank has been used in the defense of the city, said he had hardly any tank ammunition left.

Another brigade commander who has been instrumental in retaining Bakhmut posted on Facebook Tuesday that there was a “scastrophic shortage of shells.” He described an incident in which his unit disabled a Russian advanced T-90 tank, but was prohibited from firing artillery to kill it because “it’s too expensive.”

The Pentagon estimated that Ukraine was firing several thousand artillery shells a day across the 600-mile front line, which includes Bakhmut, a city that is nearly surrounded by Russian troops. Moscow forces control roughly half the city and are encroaching on the supply lines the Ukrainians need to defend the rest.

The United States hopes to produce 90,000 artillery shells a month, but that is likely to take two years. The European Union is pooling resources to manufacture and purchase about a million projectiles. That too will take time. And a secret British task force is leading an effort to find and buy Soviet-style munitions, on which Ukraine mainly depends, from around the world.

Ukraine has approximately 350 Western-supplied howitzers and, even with battlefield losses and mechanical failures, many more Soviet-era artillery pieces.

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“We have to support them more, provide them with more weapons,” Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Egidijus Meilunas said in an interview on Wednesday. He cast doubt on the effectiveness of aging Soviet-era weapons, saying: “The best solution would be to find possibilities to increase production in NATO member states.”

That’s not easy, even for some of the most advanced militaries in the world. The United States and its allies did not stockpile weapons in anticipation of supplying an artillery war. Hundreds of new tanks and armored vehicles being sent to Ukraine will certainly help their advance, but without sufficient artillery support their effect will be limited.

For now, the Biden administration remains confident that Bakhmut will not so deplete Ukraine’s munitions and troops as to condemn a spring counteroffensive. But the longer the battle goes on, the more likely that is to change.

“Ukrainians are taking casualties. I don’t want to underestimate that,” John F. Kirby, the White House National Security Council spokesman, said Tuesday. “But they are not taking casualties on the size and scale of the Russians.”

But numbers alone don’t tell the story of Bakhmut, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The Kremlin-backed Wagner paramilitary group is using ex-prisoner units to break through the Ukrainian lines. That means battle-hardened Ukrainian troops are dying while defending the city against less-trained Russian foot soldiers.

Bakhmut is a small town, but it provides road access further east and has also become symbolically important to both sides. “There is no part of Ukraine that can be said to be abandoned,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said this month. His office announced plans this week to further strengthen the city’s defenses.

The Biden administration has not set a timetable for the battle there, saying only Ukraine could make a decision on whether to withdraw or continue fighting.

Camille Grand, a defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who until last fall was NATO’s assistant secretary general for defense investment, said it was both politically important and militarily necessary for Ukraine to show it would defend its territory. But, she said, “they need to prove it was worth it.”

That is not to say there are no tactical reasons to continue the protracted work on Bakhmut, he said. He could drain Russia’s resources and prevent his troops from moving further west, where he could possibly win another advance for Moscow.

“That would be the logic of spending so much blood and ammunition on Bakhmut,” Grand said. “The alternative is that they have been dragged into a situation that, in the long term, plays in Russia’s favor and now it is difficult to get out of it.”

He added: “Is it correct to assess that the Ukrainians are drawing on their reserves, putting them in a more difficult position to do this open artillery barrage that would be necessary to start an offensive against fortified Russian lines elsewhere?

“That’s the big question now.”

natalia yermack contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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