Inside Putin’s War of Attrition

Ukrainian artillerymen reload a M777 howitzer as they fire towards Russian positions on the frontline of eastern Ukraine. Photo: Anatolii Stepanov / AFP
Julia Ioffe
November 29, 2022

Whatever euphoria there was after the liberation of Kherson earlier this month has long ago faded. In the weeks since, autumn has brought the cold and the rain, clogging the battlefields with mud and filling trenches with dingy gray water. The Russians have continued pounding Ukrainian cities with missiles and drones, focusing specifically on civilian infrastructure. So far, they’ve knocked out some 50 percent of Ukraine’s electricity grid, leaving whole swathes of the country without heat or light as winter sets in. Though electricity has mostly been restored to Kyiv, the capital has been dealing with rolling blackouts for weeks, and hospitals as far west as Lviv have reported having to conduct surgeries by flashlight. A widely circulated nighttime satellite image shows a scantly-lit black patch where Ukraine is on the map, surrounded by the well-lit European countries around it.

And now, on top of it all, the Western press is filled with stories that munitions are running low in the very countries that Ukraine relies on in keeping up its fight. After nine months of an intense land war, supplying Ukraine has become a challenge for its Western backers. At the recent Halifax International Security Forum, Admiral Rob Bauer, chairman of NATO’s military committee, called attention to the fact that, in forking over so many weapons and so much ammunition to Ukraine, NATO countries have dipped far into their strategic stockpiles, potentially compromising their own military readiness. “When you are continuing to give away ammunition to Ukraine and you have to evaluate and assess the risk you take for your own readiness, you will have to take into account the threat,” he said. And though Bauer added that “the Russians have the same problems we have in terms of their stocks,” NATO members now have to think about how to balance the need to back Ukraine with their own security. (It doesn’t help that, according to Bauer, in the years before the Russian invasion, many NATO countries kept their stocks low to begin with, because they saw little risk of invasion or because they couldn’t afford to maintain more.)

Sure, the risk that Russia invades NATO is quite low—it couldn’t even hang on to Kherson and its military is basically tapped out at the moment—but the situation still worries military types. “I think we’re at the limits of what the Pentagon is comfortable sending in some areas, though not across the board,” said Mark Cancian, a former Marine colonel and a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The D.O.D. has accepted some level of risk. To send more munitions, they have to take what’s needed for other operations plans, like Korea. For weapons like HIMARS, we’d have to take them away from fielded units. We could do that, but the military doesn’t like to do that in part because it makes training more difficult.”

The issue stems from the fact that the war between Ukraine and Russia has largely become an artillery battle. While Ukraine’s rocket attacks have been dwarfed by the Russian barrage, it is firing some 3,000 artillery shells a day. According to the New York Times, that is down from the 6,000 to 7,000 rounds Ukraine was firing last summer, at a time when the Russian volley reached 40,000 to 50,000 daily rounds. By comparison, American forces in Afghanistan fired perhaps 300 rounds of artillery a day. 

This is a war of a totally different magnitude. “These are almost World War I-like levels,” said Eric Edelman, a former undersecretary of defense for policy. “This dwarfs the Iran-Iraq War.” And it’s not the type of conflict that anyone planned on fighting again. After the Soviet Union collapsed and two passenger jets crashed into the Twin Towers, America and its allies pivoted, figuring this style of land war featuring massive artillery barrages was a thing of the past. Stocks of artillery, including air defense rockets, were kept low. After all, neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda had air forces. And sometimes even these stocks were insufficient, such as when American forces nearly ran out of artillery rounds fighting ISIS in Syria in 2018. Edelman described a debate he had with then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, James “Hoss” Cartwright, on this very issue. “He told me, We’re never going to fight a war for more than 30 days. And I said, How do you know that?” Edelman recalled. “Well, he said, That’s when munitions run out.”

Running on Fumes

The U.S. and its NATO allies have been bankrolling a war that is unlike anything that anyone, including Russia, expected. “We have gone way past what our military and Western militaries are comfortable with giving, but then they always dig deep and find more,” a former State Department official told me. But for how much longer?

Ukraine is firing anywhere from 90,000 to 120,000 artillery rounds a month, including at the Iranian drones and Russian cruise missiles trying to take out Ukrainian power and water plants, and they have to come from somewhere. The U.S., according to the Times, produces only about 15,000 shells a month. Still, Ukraine is understandably desperate for more. At the Bucharest summit on Tuesday, the Ukrainian foreign minister pleaded for more weapons, asking for their delivery “faster, faster, and faster.” But the West is already going at a breakneck pace, and it’s clearly reaching a limit of sorts. “Ukraine is going to need an amount of artillery in monthly usage that is well above what the U.S. can produce,” said one source familiar with the discussions in the Pentagon. “The U.S. is consistently pulling ammunition out of stocks. This is in the long term not a sustainable approach. We can sustain Ukrainian use of artillery but not at this rate. The problem is not today, the problem is months down the line.”

To be clear, the U.S. is in no danger of running out of weaponry or munitions any time soon. Rather, the issue is that stocks are running low relative to the Defense Department’s famously thorough contingency planning. That is, the rapid burn rate of the war in Ukraine is forcing the Pentagon to move things around and make room, by, say, taking the bet that the risk of North Korea invading South Korea next week is relatively low, and so some of the supplies allotted to that contingency plan can be shuffled off to Ukraine and restocked later. 

Still, this is an uncomfortable position for the Pentagon and for allied militaries. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, shipments of weapons to Ukraine are exacerbating an already acute backlog of military aid Washington promised to Taiwan, which is growing frustrated with the delay. “The U.S. is increasingly forced to reckon with what the medium-to-long term looks like for this war,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst with the Center for Naval Analysis. “It has to ask itself, what can it produce in terms of artillery ammunition that can be supplied on a consistent basis versus what does Ukraine need?”

Bad for Business

So what, in the old Russian parlance, is to be done? An administration source tells me the White House is working with manufacturers to ramp up production of both the weapons and ammunition Ukraine needs, but that is not a solution for next month or even next year. HIMARS, which have proved a life-saver for the Ukrainian military and were crucial in retaking Kherson, take two to three years to manufacture. So do Javelin anti-tank missiles, which helped repel the initial onslaught of the Russian invasion. Boeing recently pitched the D.O.D. on a new, work-around rocket system to arm the Ukrainians, but according to sources familiar with the proposal, it would take the company too long to make these Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bombs—or GLSDBs— and produce too few of them to make a difference. 

Moreover, the companies that make these weapons and munitions have been beset by many of the same problems we’ve been hearing about elsewhere: Covid and, yes, the supply chain. It takes a while to ramp up production, and even then, there are limits. “With the current facilities, they can just about double the production of Javelins, but if you want to go beyond that, you have to build out,” Cancian noted. That is, if the U.S. government wants Lockheed Martin to more than double the production of Javelins, which is now around 2,000 a year, they will have to build additional factory capacity. “They’re doing that but it takes years,” Cancian explained. “Industry says that before they put money in, they want to see the money. They want assurances that there will be continuing demand.” Lockheed, he noted, has dealt with this before, like when the U.S. government’s annual demand for Javelins dropped from 1,300 in 2009 to just 300 in 2013. So before Lockheed and others make the outlays necessary to build more rockets—like building more factory space, and hiring and training more workers—they want to know that they won’t spend all that money just in time for a Russian-Ukrainian armistice. As great as that would be for Ukraine and the world, it would be terrible for business.

There’s another wrinkle. “A lot of those subcontractors who provide a lot of these components, they’re all providing the same things, so there’s a lack of skilled labor and limited floor space and they’re all competing with each other for the same people,” said Edelman. “So if you go to these manufacturers and you say we need to surge production of Stingers and Javelins, they’ll say, Which do you want? Because we use the same floor space and the same components to make both.” 

Still, any of this would take years, which is why analysts and industry watchers are talking about these production increases as being geared more toward replenishing American and NATO stocks and rebuilding the Ukrainian military after the war is over. But there’s a long way to go between then and now, and the war still has to be won, or at least brought to the negotiating table.

In the meantime, the U.S. is looking for workarounds and stopgaps. It’s looking into dusting off some production facilities in the old Warsaw Pact countries that are now some of the most eager NATO members—two-thirds of whom, according to the Times, are completely tapped out on what they can give to Ukraine. Countries like Slovakia and the Czech Republic could potentially make some of the old Soviet-era munitions that the Ukrainian military still uses. The U.S. has also tapped allies like South Korea to sell artillery shells to Ukraine, which is ironic, given that Russia is replenishing its depleted stocks from North Korea. Mused Cancian, “The Koreas are having a proxy war in Ukraine, 8,000 miles away.” 

Ukraine’s “Blank Check”

There are domestic, political considerations as well. The U.S. has allocated $68 billion of aid to Ukraine in nine months of war and, on November 15, just after the red wave failed to materialize in the midterms, the Biden administration asked Congress for nearly $38 billion more. This would bring the total to more than $105 billion, and that would likely run out by May, just over a year after Vladimir Putin’s armies first invaded Ukraine. That is a lot of money and, as talk of a recession increases, the fringes of both parties are growing understandably skeptical. Both Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kevin McCarthy, who has promised her some very plum committee assignments when the G.O.P. formally takes over the House in January, have been quite vocal about taking away Ukraine’s “blank check.”

Ukraine, of course, has far from a blank check. There are certain weapons its government has been pleading for, like long-range missiles (ATACMS) that could hit Crimea or Russia proper, that the Biden administration has consistently withheld. Moreover, a good chunk of the money that U.S. taxpayers give Ukraine goes right back into purchasing American-made weapons. Javelins, for example, are made at the Lockheed plant in Troy, Alabama, which Trump carried by 18 points in 2020. And a lot of that $68 billion is spent on the Defense Department buying up more deep-red Alabama-made Javelins to replace the ones we’ve sent to Ukraine. (Here’s a good explainer.) If Lockheed surges production further, that means more money and more manufacturing jobs for one of the reddest states in the Union—but when have facts ever stopped anyone in elected office? 

Then again, I can’t imagine that this will please the Progressive Caucus of the Democratic Party, which earlier this fall came out with a strange false-start proposal calling on Biden to negotiate with Putin and stop this war sooner rather than later. (Pramila Jayapal pulled the letter after widespread criticism and blamed its publication on staffers.) Still, pumping taxpayer dollars into the defense industry, all without the standard but-how-will-we-pay-for-it handwringing that comes with any talk of social spending, will hardly thrill the left wing of the Democratic Party, which would much rather those dollars pay for universal pre-K than subsidize Lockheed Martin’s stock price. (Funnily enough, I’ve even heard people in the Pentagon voice similar complaints: Yes, we have to defeat Russia, they say, but does it have to come at the expense of, say, healthcare for Americans?)

But this is only the beginning. The war in Ukraine is about to settle into months of slow-moving, muddy trench warfare before the ground freezes over and long before the spring fighting season arrives. This war is not ending anytime soon. Both Biden and NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg have said that they will support Ukraine as long it takes. But behind the scenes, these are the questions that their military commanders are grappling with: We have to defeat Vladimir Putin, but at what cost?