The Ukrainian military is firing thousands of artillery shells a day as it tries to hold the eastern city of Bakhmut, a pace that American and European officials say is unsustainable and could jeopardize a planned springtime campaign that they hope will prove decisive.
The bombardment has been so intense that the Pentagon raised concerns with Kyiv recently after several days of nonstop artillery firing, two U.S. officials said, highlighting the tension between Ukraine’s decision to defend Bakhmut at all costs and its hopes for retaking territory in the spring. One of those officials said the Americans warned Ukraine against wasting ammunition at a key time.
With so much riding on a Ukrainian counteroffensive, the United States and Britain are preparing to ship thousands of NATO and Soviet-type artillery rounds and rockets to help shore up supplies for a coming Ukrainian offensive.
But a senior American defense official described that as a “last-ditch effort” because Ukraine’s allies do not have enough ammunition to keep up with Ukraine’s pace and their stocks are critically low. Western manufacturers are ramping up production, but it will take many months for new supplies to begin meeting demand.
This has put Kyiv in an increasingly perilous position: Its troops are likely to have one meaningful opportunity this year to go on the offensive, push back Russian forces and retake land that was occupied after the invasion began last year. And they will probably have do it while contending 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 the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Artillery has become the defining weapon of the war in Ukraine, including howitzers and mortars. Both sides have powerful antiaircraft systems, so the fighting is being waged largely on the ground. As the year-old war continues, a major factor in who perseveres is which side has enough ammunition and troops.
More than 200,000 Russians are estimated to have been wounded or killed since the start of the war. The Ukrainian figure is more than 100,000. Russia can conscript forces from its population, which is around three times the size of Ukraine’s, but both sides are contending with ammunition shortages. Russia’s formations are firing more ammunition than Ukraine’s.
“We need shells for mortars,” a Ukrainian soldier fighting in Bakhmut said in recent days. He said his battalion had not been resupplied. A Ukrainian tank commander, whose T-80 tank has been used in the city’s defense, said he had barely any tank ammunition left.
Another commander in a brigade that has been instrumental in holding Bakhmut posted on Facebook on Tuesday that there was a “catastrophic shortage of shells.” He described an incident in which his unit disabled an advanced Russian T-90 tank but was forbidden from firing artillery to finish it off 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 almost surrounded by Russian troops. Moscow’s 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 per month, but that is likely to take two years. The European Union is pooling resources to manufacture and buy about a million shells. That, too, will take time. And a secret British task force is leading an effort to find and buy Soviet-style ammunition, which Ukraine primarily relies on, from around the world.
Ukraine has roughly 350 Western-supplied howitzers and, even with battlefield losses and mechanical failures, significantly more Soviet-era artillery pieces.
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“We have to support them more, to provide more weapons,” Lithuania’s vice foreign minister, Egidijus Meilunas, said in an interview on Wednesday. He cast doubt on the effectiveness of aging Soviet-era weapons and said, “The best solution would be to find possibilities to increase production in NATO member states.”
That is not easy, even for some of the most advanced militaries in the world. The United States and its allies did not stockpile weaponry in anticipation of supplying an artillery war. Hundreds of new tanks and armored vehicles that are being sent to Ukraine will certainly aid its advance, but without enough artillery support, their effect will be limited.
For now, the Biden administration remains confident that Bakhmut will not sap Ukraine’s ammunition and troops so much that it dooms a springtime counteroffensive. But the longer the battle rages, the more likely that is to change.
“The Ukrainians are taking casualties. I do not mean to underestimate that,” John F. Kirby, the White House National Security Council spokesman, said on Tuesday. “But they are not taking casualties on the size and scale that the Russians are.”
But numbers alone do not tell the story of Bakhmut, the site of one of the war’s bloodiest battles. The Kremlin-backed Wagner paramilitary group is using units of former prisoners to break through Ukrainian lines. That means battle-hardened troops from Ukraine are dying as they defend the city against less trained Russian foot soldiers.
Bakhmut is a small city, but it provides road access farther east and has also become symbolically important for both sides. “There is no part of Ukraine about which one can say that it can be abandoned,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said this month. His office announced plans this week to further bolster the city’s defenses.
The Biden administration has not put a timeline on the battle there, saying that only Ukraine could make a decision about whether to pull back or keep 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 that it would defend its territory. But, he said, “they need to demonstrate that it was worthwhile.”
That is not to say there are no tactical reasons for continuing the protracted slog in Bakhmut, he said. It could drain Russia of resources and prevent its troops from heading farther west, where it could conceivably win another breakthrough for Moscow.
“That would be the logic of expending so much blood and ammo on Bakhmut,” Mr. Grand said. “The alternative is that they got dragged into a situation that, in the long term, plays in Russia’s favor and now it’s difficult to get out of it.”
He added: “Is it correct to assess that the Ukrainians are tapping into their reserves, putting them in a more difficult position to do this open artillery barrage that would be needed to start an offensive against fortified Russian lines elsewhere?
“That’s the big question now.”
Natalia Yermak contributed reporting from Kyiv.