The artillery shells were stored in a shallow mud dugout, covered with a black plastic tarp to keep them safe. Just 14 rounds remained — evidence of a critical ammunition shortage that has the Ukrainians scrambling for ways to conserve supply until their Western allies can produce or procure more.
The artillery platoon, with the 59th Motorized Brigade in eastern Ukraine, used to fire more than 20 or 30 shells per day with their Soviet-era howitzer. Now, they typically shoot one or two, or none at all.
The ammunition that has pounded parts of Ukraine daily for more than a year has become a precious resource in the artillery war with Russia — and which side conserves shells and rearms faster could turn the tide on the battlefield.
In the dugout, a Ukrainian soldier reached for a round as his commander recited coordinates for their first shot of the day. “Fire,” yelled the commander, whom The Washington Post agreed to identify by his call sign, Spider, due to the security risks. After the blast, he waited, staring at his phone for another order. He didn’t receive one, so he told his men to stand down, not knowing if the shell had hit its target or his commander just didn’t want to spend another one.
Even amid a shortage, Ukraine is firing about 7,700 shells per day, or roughly one every six seconds, according to a Ukrainian military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. Russia, which may also be running low, is firing more — by some estimates triple that amount.
To keep up with their adversary and still conserve ammunition, the Ukrainian military is now pickier in selecting targets, often prioritizing equipment over small groups of infantry. Precision is key because misses mean wasted shells. And in underground workshops across eastern Ukraine, soldiers are using 3D printers and recycling unexploded ordnance to create alternative munitions.
Artillery rounds for Ukraine’s Soviet-era guns, which make up the majority of their arsenal, have long been in short supply. That has forced a reliance on the artillery provided by Kyiv’s Western allies because they use 155mm-caliber shells, which Ukraine has more of for now but for far fewer guns.
At the pace Ukraine is firing, those stocks could soon run out, too, as Western countries struggle to ramp up production. In February, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that the “current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production.”
Near Spider’s artillery position, the thunder of a U.S.-provided M777 howitzer, with its 155mm shells, roared every few minutes while he and his men drank tea in a foxhole. “Sometimes we just sit here and listen to the M777 shooting and the Russian creatures shooting back. It’s like a talk between them,” Spider said.
“We don’t have a lot of ammunition, so that’s why we don’t work a lot,” he said.
The countries that still have stocks of Soviet-standard 152mm and 122mm rounds are largely former Soviet republics, many of which are hesitant to sell to Ukraine because of their ties with Russia. Some African and Middle Eastern countries, which have received weapons and ammunition from Russia over the years, also have stocks of those shells. A few former Warsaw Pact countries have the capacity to manufacture the shells but not at the scale and speed Ukraine needs on the battlefield.
Occasionally, a third country friendly to Ukraine will purchase the ammunition — sometimes through a broker — and then supply it to Ukraine in secret to avoid any political fallout for the seller. Often, the result is that one artillery piece on the battlefield may have shells produced in several countries, which soldiers say may not fire the same, affecting accuracy.
“The main issue of concern is sustainability,” Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said. “Former Warsaw Pact countries, they dismantled their production lines of Soviet-caliber ammunition since they became members of NATO. Now, we badly need this Soviet-caliber ammunition, so the question is how to restore production lines.”
Bulgaria has already agreed, as has Poland and Slovakia, Ukraine Defense Ministry spokesman Yuriy Sak said. But it’s unclear how long it will take for the needed shells to be produced and reach the battlefield.
In the meantime, the hunt for shells is occasionally perilous. In areas where Russian forces retreated, soldiers wade through mined fields and forest to look for abandoned ammunition. One such group, which was ferrying any shells to the 59th brigade, recently hit unexploded ordnance.
The 14 shells Spider’s platoon has left came from Russian stocks seized in the Kherson region in November. Spider said he didn’t know when he would get more.
The United States has searched worldwide to round up stockpiles of Soviet artillery rounds, but deliveries can take months. On Tuesday, as part of a larger security assistance package, the Pentagon said it would provide an unspecified number of artillery shells, including 122mm-caliber rounds it does not produce itself. A workhorse Ukrainian artillery piece, the D-30, uses such rounds.
“We’re incredibly transparent with the Ukrainians, so they have a really good understanding of what ammunition we are planning to provide, when we are planning to provide it,” said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. “So that enables them to be able to plan their operations and understand where they need to flow equipment.”