Europe is supplying Ukraine only a fraction of the shells it needs, while North Korea has stepped up for Russia. That, say analysts, raises challenges for Kyiv next year.
In March of this year, Ukraine asked its European allies for a quarter of a million shells a month. Its full battle plan, then-Defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov said, required at least 350,000. Ukraine was then rationing itself to just 110,000 a month and needed Europe to help make up the difference.
The European Union pledged a million shells within a year – a third of what Ukraine had requested. By the end of November, it had delivered 300,000 from the stockpiles of European armies. It has four months to make up the difference, but further deliveries have to come from new production, said Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief.
Astonishingly, after almost two years of war on European soil, the EU has not taken stock of continental production capacity. “We would like to know today where we are and what can be the rhythm of production for this second track,” said Borrell on November 14 at a gathering of EU defence ministers.
Russia, too, has been firing more shells than it can produce, and in September reached out for help to North Korea. Within a month, North Korea had delivered 1,000 containers worth of ammunition, said White House spokesperson John Kirby. Estonian military intelligence chief Col Ants Kiviselg said that translated into 300,000-350,000 shells — the same amount as that delivered by the EU to Ukraine, but in one month instead of eight.
A Washington Post analysis of satellite photography suggested the number was higher because ships had been plying the route between the North Korean free trade zone port of Rason to Russia’s port of Dunai since August.
Russia may have received additional North Korean shells via rail. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said satellite imagery showing that rail traffic between North Korea and Russia had “dramatically” increased since Russian President Vladimir Putin met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in September.
“To the West’s great surprise, Russia proved more adept at securing what it wanted from the outside, including from China,” Yiorgos Margaritis, professor emeritus of history at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, who has been monitoring the balance of artillery, told Al Jazeera. “The quantity of shells North Korea promised – 10 million – is monstrous. And they’ve already provided a 10th of that.”
“[Russia] is well supplied, it does not care for the amount of losses, and it has third-party support which is not in doubt. All of these three elements are not the same on the Ukrainian side,” Jens Bastian, a fellow with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Al Jazeera.
The EU has been left fumbling for an answer. Borrell has suggested its defence industry default on contracts to overseas clients, who are currently buying 40 percent of its production.
The US response was quicker and more dynamic. In February it decided to increase artillery shell production sixfold – a level not seen since the Korean War – to replenish stocks sent to Ukraine, supply Ukraine with more, and build up stocks for future conflicts.
According to a New York Times report, the US Army was buying 14,400 shells a month in September 2022, when it tripled that, and in January 2023 doubled it again, to 90,000. But it will still take US defence contractors until the end of next year to reach that production capacity.
What is the matter with Europe?
The EU says it will match the US’s orderbook of a roughly million rounds of artillery ammunition, including missiles, per year by spring.
“I am responsible for the production capacity of ammunition, so I can confirm that the goal of producing more than a million ammunition rounds annually … can be achieved,” EU internal market commissioner Thierry Breton was reported to have said at an EU defence ministers’ meeting on November 14.
For that to happen, governments must place orders, he said.
“It is the member states who must place the order for this ammunition, who must produce it, and who must ensure that it is produced primarily for Ukraine. All this is in the hands of the member countries,” said Breton.
Yet, by December 6, EU members had placed orders for only 60,000 of the one million shells they promised Ukraine, Reuters news agency reported. Orders take a long time to fulfil, making it doubtful that the EU will come through by March on even the limited ones that have been placed. For example, German steel and weapons manufacturer Rheinmetall said on December 3 it had received a 142-million-euro ($156mn) order for shells intended for Ukraine, but these would be delivered in 2025.
The EU’s lamentable state of coordination on defence has many reasons, say experts.
Unlike areas such as banking, the green energy transition and transport, where EU member states have closely coordinated policies led by Brussels, defence and foreign policy remain national competencies.
“We do not have an integrated European defence industry and also an integrated European defence policy, and Ukraine has highlighted that for two years,” said Bastian. “Mr Borrell is making clear that the failure at the EU level is also a failure of individual countries who do not have … the capacity to produce at scale within a defined period of time,” he said.
Lack of coordination in foreign policy is just as challenging. “We don’t have one defined, shared threat perception, and therefore the countries have different priorities,” said Minna Alander, a research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
“Not everyone shares the view that Russia is an existential threat to Europe,” she told Al Jazeera.
Europe’s divestment from heavy industry, including metals production, which reached a climax during the COVID-19 pandemic, contributed to a slim supply of raw materials for weapons.
“If you want to build a bridge, 80 percent of your steel is going to come from China, India and one or two other countries in the east. The same applies for weapons production,” said Margaritis. “If you want to increase steel production, you need to make enormous changes,” he said, including the provision of cheap energy and plentiful labour.
If Europe does not maintain at least some self-sufficiency in heavy industry, it risks its own security, say experts.
“Europe needs an epochal shift in political thinking, coupled with significantly higher defence spending and a determined effort to reset public perceptions of the need for strong defence,” Bastian Giegerich, director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank, and Tim Lawrenson, a defence industry consultant, recently wrote.
“None of these requirements currently looks assured. Unless they are met, however, NATO’s vaunted deterrent may falter. Russia may no longer perceive Europe as having credible defences and become tempted to attack a NATO member.”
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