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Russia's Completely Avoidable "Shell Hunger" in Ukraine
Russian war bloggers report shell shortages. How could Moscow let this happen?
NOTE FROM EDWARD: On April 25, 2022, Marko Marjanović, editor of Anti-Empire, wrote a guest post for this blog in which he warned that Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine faced a critical manpower shortage, and the failure to partially mobilize—or at the very least retain conscripts—would likely have catastrophic consequences for Moscow.
This was just two months after the start of the war, when conventional wisdom among “indy” media pundits was “everything is going according to plan!” and “the Ukrainian military is weeks—or days—away from total collapse!”
Marko has returned to E. Slavsquat—this time to document evidence of a troubling shell shortage in the Russian military. It would probably be unwise to dismiss this warning, considering Anti-Empire has been accurately chronicling the various twists and turns of this bizarre conflict since before Day One.
Russia-Ukraine war punditry has become one of the biggest grifts on the internet—possibly even surpassing the “send Elon Musk 1 bitcoin, and get 100 bitcoin in return!” scams on Twitter.
If you are tired of unhinged prophesies from both NAFO knuckleheads and Kremlin bootlickers, follow Marko on Substack and back his valiant efforts to inject a bit of sanity into “indy” media “war coverage.”
Spasibo and Merry Xmas to those on the Julian calendar
By Marko Marjanović, Editor of Anti-Empire
But that didn’t matter. They could only get to his blog post, but his post on Telegram stayed up. The essay was highlighted by Strelkov as necessary reading and reposted by a host of other Russian war-blogging Telegram channels.
The most interesting part of the article reports the Russian army is now running short on artillery shells, up to the point of now using tanks in indirect fire mode as makeshift artillery.
“You can’t talk about it, because then someone will have to answer for it, but no one wants to,” Murz wrote.
Murz criticizes this, pointing out that tanks fire shells at much higher velocities so their guns wear out much faster. He says all this is going to accomplish is that soon all these tanks are going to need a refit, and then there will be a shortage of tanks in addition to a shortage of artillery.
The first time we heard of “shell hunger” on the Russian side was in early November when “War Gonzo” and Ramzan Kadyrov revealed that one of the reasons the Russian position in Kherson was untenable and warranted a withdrawal was because the Russians forces there didn’t have stable access to artillery ammunition.
At the time I assumed that was because the Ukrainians had heavily damaged the bridges across the Dnieper, but it might have been that there was also already a shortage of shells just in general.
Since then several Russian Telegram channels have spoken up on the shell shortage, particularly in the last days of December. These include TopaZ (a fighter with Rusich volunteers in Lugansk), Two Majors, and Wagner’s Grey Zone.
The complaints seemingly forced Vladimir Putin himself to speak on the matter. He stopped short of confirming that there is an ammo crisis of such proportions as to affect gun crews at the front, but in a televised event with the media he confirmed that Russia was indeed depleting its ammo stock.
At the same time, a video appeared which appears to show a Wagner gun crew cursing Gerasimov and complaining they have no shells with which to support their infantry in the Bakhmut meatgrinder.
Some immediately proclaimed the video a fake — it was surely dastardly Ukrainians dressed up as Wagner! But then Prigozhin and Grey Zone made sure everyone knew it was legit. Prigozhin visited Bakhmut and sought out the very gunners who had made it and Grey Zone publicized that they repeated their complaints.
“But Prigozhin found these positions, arrived there and did not see “Ukrainian nationalists” there, but he saw his fighters, who confirmed the problem.”
Taken together, unless Murz, TopaZ, Grey Zone and Two Majors are all hallucinating at the same time, all this points to a severe shell hunger on the Russian side. (Hunger that Ukraine has been operating under since the start of the war.)
I don’t think that the Russians are out of shells as such. But there is some Draconian rationing system in place now that means shells do not reach some gun crews, or in far smaller quantities than they are used to.
I can’t emphasize enough how shocking this is.
For one thing, the USSR left behind 30 million tons(!) of ammunition, much of it 152 mm shells (as many as 100 million rounds). What happened to all of it? Was it all destroyed, lost, or wasted to poor storage? (Probably yes. By 2013 just 2.6 million tons of useable ammo was accounted for.)
Look, war places an enormous demand on shells and it takes gigantic industrial enterprises to keep those shells coming. For example, in WW2 one third of German and Soviet steel production was consumed by their respective ammunition makers. That is why shell crises are not unheard of. Especially famous ones occurred in early WW1.
But it is precisely because by 2022 everyone knew what a huge demand war places on shells that you would have expected Moscow to have handled this preemptively.
If the Russian stockpile was this limited, then why were as many as 60,000 fired daily during the summer? That’s an incredibly high number, and it’s not as if they were consumed to some great effect. They caused some attrition, but the frontline barely moved. Just a little rationing and moderation back then could have postponed or spared the current crisis.
Instead, a limited resource was being consumed with wild abandon as if it were limitless in an uneconomical fashion and to diminishing returns. It could have been as easy as appointing a shells quartermaster who monitored the stockpile and controlled drawdowns.
Also, it has been 10 months since the start of the war. If steps to ramp up production were taken immediately, by now there would have been some results.
It’s one thing to run out of shells. That happens. It’s nobody’s fault. But it’s another thing to run out of shells because you didn’t do basic rationing ahead of time, and didn’t get serious about production expansion until well into the war.
Putin hasn’t done so much as visited a defense plant in a photo-op until last month, and spent more than half a year downplaying the SMO as just one of the many parallel projects of the state.
In the height of irony, in the spring and summer when the Russian military had the momentum and the shells, it didn’t have the manpower to properly exploit that. (And used up even more shells in a desperate bid to try to make up for the shortage of infantry.)
But now that mobilization doubled the Russian military’s manpower, it no longer has the shells to properly support its men with fires. (And the professional component of the army that was left alone in the fight for so long has been significantly weakened and can’t lead with the same vigor as before.)
Exactly what I have been warning about throughout the year has happened. By committing its resources piecemeal the Kremlin made sure they would be exhausted with the lowest return possible.
It’s interesting that after confirming Russia was depleting its stocks, Putin went on to qualify that by saying that at least Russian manufacturing capabilities were expanding, while Ukraine’s military-industrial complex is falling apart:
At this point, one has to ask if Vladimir Putin is a fool, or if he just plays one on TV.
This is such a sleight of hand. Ukraine went through its artillery ammo stockpile in the first 6 weeks of the war, and produced its very first 152 mm shell only in November.
Ukraine’s defense industry has never been a factor in this equation. If Kiev was relying on Ukrainian shells this would have been an entirely different war. Ukrainian artillery fires past the first 6 weeks were sustained by Bulgarian, Czech, South Korean, and especially American shells.
The US has delivered 1 million shells, has another 3-4 million in storage and is taking steps to expand production from 15,000 monthly to 40,000. And Washington can order many more in plants in Europe and Asia. That is what a Russian leader should be thinking of how to counter, not running victory laps over eliminating Ukrainian capabilities that never existed in the first place.
(Reportedly in 2020 Russia refurbished 300,000 artillery shells and manufactured 750,000 new ones in 2019. By contrast, the US is now in the process of ramping up production from 180,000 yearly to 480,000 yearly by 2024. In this context, Russian figures look good, until you calculate that at height of consumption, Russia was expending a year’s worth of production in three weeks and over 10% of its 10-15 million stockpile.)
Shortly after Putin made his comments, Viktor Murakhovsky, a defense pundit with strong establishment connections, and Rybar, perhaps the most popular Russian war-watching channel, also tackled the shells issue and confirmed a crisis:
“The reasons for this lie not only in the destruction of enterprises of the military-industrial complex, but also in the absence of an order for a large amount of ammunition from the Ministry of Defense due to the lack of such a huge expenditure in the KTO in the North Caucasus, operations in Syria and Donbass. Stocks for an operation of this level were more than enough, warehouses were not empty.”
“And the arsenals were thinned out in 2010-2011 at the direction of the former Minister of Defense. No one really carried out an audit, therefore, those samples that could have been safely delivered to the Syrian Arab Army in 2015 were also liquidated.
“But then came the turn of the SVO with a wild consumption of ammunition: firing 100k shells in a couple of days is commonplace. Warehouses began to empty, and the production of the pre-war level could not cover everything. The decision to expand production was made much later than necessary.”
The Kremlin didn’t expect a long war, didn’t plan for a long war, and didn’t prepare for a long war. The SMO was supposed to triumph in just days.
In his 5000-word critique Murz constantly returns to his refrain of “such levels of incompetence do not exist,” suggesting that the glaring deficiencies he chronicles are the result of sabotage.
War blogger DonRF who is a Donetsk native, however, remembers that in 2014 he saw the same incomprehensible levels of incompetence on the Ukrainian side, which thus do not need to point to a betrayal.
Thus we have a pessimist who suspects intentional sabotage and an “optimist” who posits that the Russian war effort is simply just as incompetent as the Ukrainian war effort eight years ago. Uplifting stuff.