As Russia's full-on invasion drags on toward a third year, Ukraine is finding itself increasingly outgunned when it comes to vital artillery ammunition.
A recent CNN report highlighted that problem, with one Ukrainian fire team only receiving smoke rounds after their magazine went empty, while the Russians are firing 10 times as many shells on a daily basis.
Those concerns have been echoed by the Pentagon.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander told reporters, including from The War Zone, that Ukrainian officials have raised the issue.
The Pentagon has "heard reports from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and general staff that they believe that units do not have the stocks and the stores of ammunition that they require," she said Tuesday. "And that is one of the reasons we have been focusing on the need to answer Congress's questions so that they are able to move forward on a decision to pass the supplemental."
Late last year, President Joe Biden requested a $106 billion supplemental spending package to be split between Ukraine and Israel, but also including funds to boost competition with China in the Indo-Pacific, as well as security along the U.S. border with Mexico. Congress has not passed it.
That has held up U.S. donations to Ukraine.
At the 18th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) held earlier this week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged allies to continue helping Ukraine. However, it was the first time the U.S. has not provided any aid. The last aid was announced in December, a package valued up to $250 million that included an undisclosed amount of 155mm and 105mm artillery ammunition.
The Pentagon's top spokesman also raised concerns about the lack of supplemental funding.
"You know, obviously, the continued lack of funding has forced us to pause drawing down additional items from our inventories, given the implications for our own military readiness," Air Force Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters, including from The War Zone, on Tuesday. "And this, of course, prevents us from meeting Ukraine's most urgent battlefield needs to include things like artillery rounds, anti-tank weapons, air defense interceptors."
Conversely, Estonia’s top military commander said fresh intelligence on Russia’s ability to produce ammunition and recruit troops has prompted a re-evaluation among NATO allies and a spate of warnings to prepare for a long-term conflict, according to Bloomberg.
"Martin Herem, the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, said predictions that Russian forces would reach the limits of their resources haven’t come true," the publication reported. "President Vladimir Putin’s military has the capacity to produce several million artillery shells a year, far outstripping European efforts, and can recruit hundreds of thousands of new troops, he said."
There also remains concern in the Pentagon, expressed again today by Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh, about the artillery ammunition as well as ballistic missiles being provided by North Korea to Russia.
Russia had been struggling to keep up with Ukraine's artillery expenditures before a deal was reached between Moscow and Pyongyang to provide massive quantities of artillery rounds, which North Korea is swimming in and can independently produce more, as well as other weapons for Russia's war effort. This has caused a huge influx of rounds for the Russian side just as the stream of American artillery shells has dried up.
Wallander, the assistant defense secretary, expressed confidence after the UDCG meeting that the international effort to provide Ukraine with more artillery will work.
"Alongside France, the United States is co-leading the coalition that will strengthen Ukraine's artillery power and ensure that Ukraine has the artillery systems and ammunition it requires," she said.
As the war approaches the two-year mark, whether that actually happens remains to be seen.
Before diving into more developments from the conflict in Ukraine, The War Zone readers can review our previous coverage here.
On the battlefield, little has changed over the last 48 hours, with Russia continuing to push forward near Avdiivka in Donetsk Oblast and reports of a new buildup of Moscow's forces near there.
Russian media reports indicated that the aircraft came down near the village of Yablonovo in the Korocha district, immediately northeast of the regional capital, the city of Belgorod, around 11:00 am local time.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed the jet was carrying 65 Ukrainian prisoners of war heading for a semi-regular exchange and that Ukraine was notified about it before shooting it down. The Ukrainian Defense Intelligence Directorate (GUR) has not acknowledged the jet was shot down and said "Ukraine was not informed about the number of vehicles, routes and forms of delivery of prisoners. It is known that prisoners are delivered by air, rail and road transport. This may indicate deliberate actions by Russia aimed at creating a threat to the life and safety of prisoners."
High-ranking Russian officials were supposed to be on board the Il-76 aircraft that crashed in Belogorod Oblast on Jan. 24, but the Federal Security Service (FSB) did not allow them to board at "the last moment," Andrii Yusov, Ukraine's military intelligence spokesperson, told RFE/RL on Jan. 25.
According to Yusov, Ukrainian intelligence suggests that several senior military and political officials should have been on board but were instead told by the FSB to use other modes of transport.
Yusov said that this information became known to Ukrainian intelligence after the plane crashed.
Meanwhile, photos and videos from the site of the Russian Il-76 plane crash do not indicate "any signs that there were such a large number of people on the plane," Chief Ombudsman Dmytro Lubinets said on Ukrainian national television Jan. 25.
President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on the evening of Jan. 24 that Ukraine will insist on an international investigation into the plane crash. Ukraine also says the Russians are trying to use this incident to sow internal discontent.
We will continue to monitor this situation as it develops.
It appears that Ukraine is continuing its efforts to attack Russian gas and oil facilities.
A Rosneft-owned export-oriented oil refinery in the southern Russian town of Tuapse on the Black Sea was struck by drones and set ablaze, the Ukrainian Suspline news agency reported on Telegram.
"The fire at the oil refinery in Tuapse, Russia, is a special operation of the SBU, sources in the special services told us," Suspline reported. "According to sources, this plant supplies fuel to Russian troops. The oil depot was attacked by drones. As a result of the fire, the facility for the primary processing of oil products, namely the vacuum and atmospheric columns, was damaged."
The plant's annual capacity is 12 million metric tons (240,000 barrels per day), Reuters reported. It supplies fuel mainly to Turkey, China, Malaysia and Singapore. The plant produces naphtha, fuel oil, vacuum gasoil and high-sulphur diesel.
The War Zone cannot independently verify a drone strike on the facility, more than 300 miles from the front lines in Ukraine, but there have been a number of reported Ukrainian strikes on oil and gas facilities deep inside Russia, including one Jan. 22 on the Ust-Luga terminal in St. Petersburg, more than 600 miles from the Ukrainian border.
As we noted previously, these attacks deep in Russia may force Moscow to move some of its air defense assets from the front lines to protect its cities. Video has emerged on social media that seem to indicate that may be happening. It shows an S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system being set up on a roadside near St. Petersburg in the wake of recent attacks there.
The Russians, meanwhile, are continuing their attacks against Ukrainian cities.
Russian missiles hit Ukraine's two largest cities on Jan. 23, killing 18 people, injuring more than 130 and damaging homes and infrastructure, President Volodymyr Zelensky said.
Kharkiv suffered three waves of attacks. There were strikes on Kyiv and in central Ukraine and the southern region of Kherson, subject to constant barrages.
France has donated two more LRU (Lance-Roquette Unitaire) multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to Ukraine, for a total of six that have been provided since November 2022. The LRU is a French version of the U.S.-made the M270 MLRS. Like the similar M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS, it fires Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS) munitions capable of hitting targets up to about 50 miles away.
Germany is donating six 50-year-old Sea King Mk41 helicopters to Ukraine, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced after the 18th meeting of the Ramstein Contact Group of more than 50 allies of Ukraine, which took place on Jan. 23 online.
"[The Sikorsky] Sea King is a proven and powerful helicopter that will help Ukrainians in areas from reconnaissance over the Black Sea to transporting soldiers. This will be the first German delivery of this type," Pistorius said.
The German provision of Sea Kings follows the 2022 donation by the U.K. Defense Ministry of three Sea King search and rescue helicopters to Ukraine.
While the Sea King donation is clear cut, there seems to be confusion over a reported deal that would have Germany sell its Taurus KEPD 350 air-launched cruise missiles to the U.K., which would in turn provide more of its Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missiles to Ukraine.
On Wednesday, the German publication Handlesblatt reported there was such a deal under consideration, something that came up after German reluctance to provide Ukraine with the Taurus. However, Pistorius told the Bild news outlet on Thursday he was unaware of such discussions.
“I don't know anything about this offer. If there are talks about it, then not in my house (ministry).”
Bloomberg, meanwhile, reported today that Germany is also considering a swap with France, providing Taurus to France, so it can send more SCALP-EG air-launched cruise missiles, which are nearly identical to the Storm Shadows, to Ukraine.
Regardless of the outcome of these reported talks, the whole conversation highlights dilemma over supplies of these munitions. Even after nearly two years of war in Ukraine - where donated cruise missiles have proven themselves on the battlefield - neither Germany, France or the U.K. are producing new stocks of those weapons, but that could change.
A new compilation video shows Russian soldier being chased and killed by Ukrainian First Person View (FPV) drones.
A truck full of Russians is seen in the video below being attacked by an FPV drone.
As FPV drones play an increasing role for Ukraine and Russia alike, both sides continue to find ways to protect their troops and equipment, often by the creation of so-called cope cages.
A BMPT is seen in images below with a massive cope cage canopy and chains designed to provide a barrier against FPV drones. It is also seen with Kontakt-1 explosive reactive armor tiles.
Ukraine added a cope cage to at least one of its U.K.-donated Challenger 2 tanks.
An image recently emerged on social media of a Russian 2S9 Nona-S 120mm self-propelled mortar recently sporting a cope cage that seems big enough to double as a batting cage.
Given the importance of drones on the battlefield for both sides, those who operate them are prime targets. Such was apparently the case for a group of Russian drone pilots at the Ilovaisk training grounds in occupied Donetsk Oblast. One Russian milblogger claimed that as many as two dozen were killed in a HIMARS strike. Another complained that the head of the training course was negligent for sending messages over Telegram that could have been intercepted by Ukraine.
Ukraine has apparently taken the use of uncrewed ground vehicles (UGVs) to a new level. This video below shows troops packing one with more than 120 pounds of explosives, then sending it nearly 2.5 miles over enemy territory to disable a bridge.
The video below offers the commander's view of a Ukrainian BTR-4E Bucephalus, a locally produced amphibious 8x8 wheeled infantry fighting vehicle, in action. The video shows the crew firing dozens of rounds as it moves toward Russian forces, before pulling back.
You can also hear the crew communication during the battle.
The commander got lucky. His observation window was hit.
The Russians are testing the use of a Fagot anti-tank guide missile (ATGM) launcher mated to a drone, according to the BTVT Telegram channel. Given that the missile requires the operator to keep a crosshair on the target, it is unlikely to provide accurate fire, but it's possible that can be overcome in the future. It also shows the system firing while on the ground, which would provide more stability.
Speaking of odd military equipment marriages, the Russians have also wedded an RBU-6000 Smerch-2 anti-submarine rocket launcher with a Ural truck.
The improvised rocket salvo system was spotted on the territory of the temporarily occupied city of Alchevsk, in the Luhansk region, according to the Defence UA news outlet.
"This is the first time that the RBU-6000 has been lit up in use on the chassis of a truck," the publication stated. We have previously written about the Russians mounting one of these weapons to an MT-LB.
While the system's 265-pound warheads can only reach a little more than three miles, "which makes such a machine quite vulnerable, in particular, against FPV drones."
The Russians have apparently also mounted RBU-6000s to the hulls of T-80 tanks as well.
The video below is a slow-motion view of an anti-aircraft team from the 93rd Mechanized Brigade intercepting an incoming Russian Lancet loitering munition with a Swedish-supplied RBS-70 man portable air defense system (MANPADS) on the outskirt of Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast.
And finally, Igor Girkin, a former military leader in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic who is also known by the name Igor Strelkov, has been found guilty on extremism charges today. He was sentenced to four years in prison by a Moscow court. Girkin criticized President Vladimir Putin’s handling of the war on Ukraine and was convicted of inciting extremism. He has denied the charges.
Girkin was also one of three men found guilty by a Dutch court in 2022 of the murder of 298 people onboard flight Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. That airliner was shot down by a SA-11 Buk surface-to-air missile when it was flying over eastern Ukraine in 2014. He was given a life sentence in absentia.
That's it for now. We'll publish a new Ukraine Situation Report when there's more news to report.
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