EU should buy ammo outside of the bloc to quickly resupply Ukraine

EU should buy ammo outside of the bloc to quickly resupply Ukraine

While the world watches Israel and Iran, Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine is at a crossroads. More than two years since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the situation on the eastern front now looks dire, with Ukrainian defenders running out of ammunition fast and Western unity in question. The Czech Republic has a plan that could help resupply Ukrainian forces with artillery shells.

Earlier this year, many believed the war in Ukraine was reaching a stalemate. However, such assumptions now appear unfounded, much to the detriment of the Ukrainians. The conflict has evolved into a positional struggle: Both sides are employing defensive tactics such as trenches, fortifications, land mines and vast numbers of drones to make it difficult to concentrate forces, let alone maneuver, without drawing fire.

As the much larger country, and with fewer qualms about human costs, Russia is better prepared for such a war of attrition. It has mobilized its defense industry onto a war footing and significantly increased its production capacity, especially in terms of artillery munitions. It is reportedly producing around 250,000 artillery rounds per month, or 3 million a year, compared to the much less ambitious — and unrealized — goal of increasing U.S. production to 100,000 rounds a month by the end of 2025.

U.S. military aid to Ukraine has now been passed in the U.S. Congress, but Europe has been struggling to ramp up its own production to offset the American shortfalls.

As a result, Ukraine has found itself in an increasingly vulnerable position, with Russian forces making tactical gains across the front line and capturing the city of Avdiivka. While none of these advances have translated into a decisive breakthrough, Russia is thought to be preparing major offensives for the late spring or summer, seeking to exploit its growing advantages in both troops and firepower.

To fuel its attacks, Russia has tapped into its recruitment pool and devoted a large amount of its state budget to defense. President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on March 31 to conscript 150,000 Russians as part of its regular spring conscription campaign. The war effort is further backed by a major increase in military spending, as the country is reportedly planning to spend $140 billion on defense in 2024, representing 7.1% of its gross domestic product and 35% of all government expenditure. It is believed that Russia can sustain the current rate of attrition through 2025.

In the meantime, the situation in Ukraine is arguably more critical than at any time since the early days of the invasion. According to Ukraine’s defense minister, half of all promised military support has not arrived on time, complicating planning and costing lives. While NATO allies are discussing the establishment of a five-year aid package to Ukraine worth more than $100 billion, the plan seems to be a long-term solution to equip the Ukrainian military and does not meet the immediate needs. In contrast, Russia fires 10,000 artillery shells per day, five times more than Ukraine, as it escalates its attacks and seeks to wear down Ukrainian defenses.

To address Ukraine’s urgent needs, the Czech Republic has initiated a plan to purchase artillery shells from non-European Union sources, demonstrating proactive leadership and aligning with its robust new defense strategy. The initiative aims to procure 500,000 pieces of 155mm rounds and 300,000 pieces of 122mm rounds worth €3 billion (U.S. $3.2 billion).

Czechia has already received funds from allies for the purchase of the first 300,000 pieces of ammunition and contracted for the first 180,000, with negotiations ongoing for an additional half a million rounds. So far, 18 countries have joined the initiative, but Czech Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Lipavský is urging more funding, as the current amount pledged is not sufficient.

The Czechs are reportedly exploring ammunition sources in South Korea, Turkey and South Africa, though suppliers have not been specified.

This small country’s initiative has contributed to exposing divisions within the EU. After much wrangling, the bloc has belatedly agreed on reforms of the European Peace Facility, which is used to reimburse member states for sending aid to Ukraine.

One significant obstacle was France’s opposition to the buying of military materiel from non-EU countries as it pushed for a “buy European” clause to support the European defense industry. Germany, on the other hand, asked for national donations to Ukraine to be considered in determining the size of financial contributions to the fund.

Eventually, EU members reached a compromise that gives priority to the European industry but allows for flexibility when it would not be able to provide Ukraine with assistance in the necessary time frames, opening the way for the Czech initiative. In contrast, Slovakia and Hungary have declined to join the Czech initiative altogether, stating that they are not prepared to change their strict refusal to provide arms to Ukraine.

These disagreements cast the spotlight on the EU’s dilemma between addressing Ukraine’s immediate battlefield needs and addressing longer-term goals such as increasing European defense-industrial capacity. In reality, the EU needs to pursue both paths simultaneously to provide Kyiv with enough support.

After decades of underinvestment, improving the EU’s industry capacity will not happen overnight. Therefore, the EU ought to purchase ammunition outside the EU to buy time for European industry to develop the necessary capacities.

Providing Ukraine with artillery shells would not only support Ukraine’s military at a time of immediate need but would also signal the EU’s continuing will and capacity to support Kyiv. Such a move would be a welcome reassurance for Ukraine and a demonstration to the U.S. of Europe’s willingness to stand with Kyiv for the long term and to take a greater share of the wider burden of defending trans-Atlantic security.

Last but not least, the aid would impose additional costs on Russia, and give Ukraine time to rebuild and replenish its own forces ahead of a possible counteroffensive in late 2024 or 2025.

James Black is assistant director of the defense and security research group at the Europe branch of the think tank Rand, where Ondrej Palicka is a research assistant. Zdenek Rod is a research and teaching fellow at the University of West Bohemia and CEO of the Center for Security Consulting in Prague.

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