BAKHMUT, Ukraine — Holed up in a bombed-out house in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian troops keep a careful accounting of their ammunition, using a door as a sort of ledger. Scrawled in chalk on the door are figures for mortar shells, smoke shells, shrapnel shells and flares.
Despite the heavy influx of weapons from the West, Ukrainian forces are outgunned by the Russians in the battle for the eastern Donbas region, where the fighting is largely being carried out by way of artillery exchanges.
While the Russians can keep up heavy, continuous fire for hours at a time, the defenders can’t match the enemy in either weapons or ammunition and must use their ammo more judiciously.
At the outpost in eastern Ukraine, dozens and dozens of mortar shells are stacked up. But the troops’ commander, Mykhailo Strebizh, who goes by the nom de guerre Gaiduk, lamented that if his fighters were to come under an intense artillery barrage, their cache would, at best, amount to only about four hours’ worth of return fire.
Ukrainian authorities say the West’s much-ballyhooed support for the country is not sufficient and is not arriving on the battlefield fast enough for this grinding and lethal phase of the war.
While Russia has kept quiet about its war casualties, Ukrainian authorities say up to 200 of their soldiers are dying each day. Russian forces are gaining ground slowly in the east, but experts say they are taking heavy losses.
The United States last week upped the ante with its largest pledge of aid for Ukrainian forces yet: an additional $1 billion in military assistance to help repel or reverse Russian advances.
But experts note that such aid deliveries haven’t kept pace with Ukraine’s needs, in part because defense industries aren’t turning out weaponry fast enough.
“We’re moving from peacetime to wartime,” said Francois Heisbourg, a senior adviser at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research think tank. “Peacetime means low production rates, and ramping up the production rate means that you have to first build industrial facilities. … This is a defense-industrial challenge which is of a very great magnitude.”
“What the Ukrainians have got to do is conduct what military people tend to call a counter-battery operation” to respond to Russian artillery fire, said Ben Barry, a former director of the British Army Staff who is senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “To do this, you need accurate weapons with a high rate of fire and a range that allows them to keep out of the way of the other side’s artillery.”
“The Ukrainians are saying they don’t have enough long-range rockets to adequately suppress Russian artillery,” he said. “I think they’re probably right.”
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