How Ukraine is Crushing Russia’s Famed “God of War” Artillery


Ukrainian “Grad” multiple rocket launcher fires near Orikhiv on June 27, 2023 in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, UkrainePHOTO BY SERHII MYKHALCHUK/GLOBAL IMAGES UKRAINE VIA GETTY IMAGES

The artillery that has been the centerpiece of Russia’s offensive in Ukraine is running severely short as Ukraine’s increasingly effective weapons of the same type exact devastating losses, according to U.S. intelligence analysts.

Artillery, called the “God of War” by Joseph Stalin for its deadliness, is also central to Ukraine’s ongoing counter-offensive. While that has made slower progress than last year’s dramatic advances against the Russian invasion, the analysts believe Russia’s artillery shortages are not only allowing the Ukrainians to operate with greater flexibility but were also behind Yevgeny Prigozhin‘s attention-grabbing mutiny in late June.

“Artillery has been Russia’s advantage, until now,” says a senior defense intelligence official, in an emailed statement to Newsweek, “and though the artillery duel between the two countries has been relentless and had crushing effect on both sides, it is Russia that is now suffering the greatest losses.” The official requested anonymity to speak about sensitive matters.

The counter-offensive is now impeded mostly by the task of breaching Russian minefields and defenses, which after a year of preparation are enormous.

Russian authorities did not respond to Newsweek‘s request for comment. The Russian Ministry of Defense has not publicly addressed the shortages or supply problems associated with artillery. The Ministry has said that Russian forces are increasingly using small drones to spot targets for indirect artillery attack, and that “high explosive and high explosive fragmentation shells are used to inflict as much losses on Armed Forces of Ukraine personnel and fortified positions as possible, including deep underground concrete fortifications of Ukrainian nationalists.”A combination of factors, including Western supplies of better guns and shells, superior intelligence information and counterbattery fire, and long-range attacks on Russian supply lines have accumulated in favor of Ukraine over the past 10 months.

Disjointed and uncoordinated Russian attacks, including human wave attacks by Prigozhin’s private Wagner group have also resulted in higher and higher casualties amongst Russian soldiers, analysts say.

That was a factor in Prigozhin’s dramatic rebellion in late June when his forces barreled towards Moscow before reaching agreement to pull back.

“Conventional wisdom regarding the entire Wagner episode is wrong,” writes a second senior military intelligence officer who has consistently predicted that Russia would lose the Ukraine war. “There was no coup and Prigozhin was most likely going public to reach out directly to Putin to highlight devastating losses and Moscow’s losing strategy.”

Russian artillery shortages and escalating casualties have been a constant theme of intelligence reporting since the height of the push by Russia to take the town of Bakhmut. U.S. intelligence now estimates that Ukraine has superiority over Russia in tube artillery, while Russia leads in rocket launchers. The British Ministry of Defence intelligence stated in early July that Russia has “implemented a shell-rationing regime for artillery in an attempt to preserve its critical indirect fire capability.” In English, this means that Russia, which had been at one-time firing as many as 50,000 artillery projectiles (that is, “shells”) in a day, it is now down to a little more than one-tenth of that number, with Russia only using artillery in token attacks over many of the sectors along the 1,500 mile front, according to U.S. intelligence analysts, concentrating its use of artillery where Ukraine is most active.

British military intelligence also says that Russia was constrained by Ukraine’s destruction and capture of numerous army radars used to detect and respond to Ukrainian artillery attacks. These “counter-battery” radars locate the exact positions of Ukrainian guns and rocket launchers when they fire, allowing Russian artillery strikes on those very positions.”

Russian ground forces survivability relies on effectively detecting Ukrainian artillery and striking against it, often with its force’s own artillery,” the defense ministry said of the consequences of Russian losses on July 16. “Russian defenders are highly likely struggling with poor morale … and a limited ability to find and strike Ukrainian artillery,” the ministry said on July 7. On July 4, it said that Russian “forces continue to suffer from key weaknesses, especially overstretched units and a shortage of artillery munitions.

“The shortage of artillery guns, ammunition and rockets has forced Russian commanders to limit the mobility of ground infantry to the static defense of trench lines. In particular, analysts point to the emplacement of hundreds of Soviet-era T-62 and T-54/55 tanks, some of which are 75 years old, in the trenches. The old tanks have been buried and are being used like artillery to fire at short distances, though their range (some 3,000 meters maximum) and their effectiveness is nowhere near the same as indirect fire, that is, actual artillery guns that are fired beyond the line of sight. Thus, Russian forces at the front line are more vulnerable to Ukrainian artillery attack.

Moreover, stocks of old and unreliable shells and rockets have been arriving at Russian artillery units. Some of these projectiles, from the Korean war era, have been experiencing 90 percent failure, destroying firing tubes or failing to explode. The shortage of replacement barrels for the artillery guns, a problem also plaguing Ukraine due to the high rates of fire, is of particular concern in Russian units relegated to firing older shells, U.S. intelligence assesses, the older projectiles causing greater stresses on the firing tubes.

If there’s one thing that no one predicted would seal a battlefield victory for Ukraine, it was superiority in artillery.

Russia started with more guns

Russia began its invasion of Ukraine last February with far more guns than Ukraine, with artillery being central to its decades-long strategy of using firepower to pound enemy forces into submission. At one point in the early part of the Ukraine war, Russia fired ten times as many artillery shells than Ukraine. Russian reliance on firepower – that is, long-range strikes by artillery, multiple rocket launchers and short-range missiles – was always assumed to be the war winner for Moscow.

But then the tide started to turn. Ukraine began to receive U.S. and other western supplies of new artillery projectiles for its guns, followed by newer and more capable and reliable artillery guns. Long-range rocket launchers (HIMARS) and precision-guided shells and rockets also gave Ukraine an advantage.

By July, the United States has supplied Ukraine with well over two million artillery shells and rockets. With instruction and experience, with better command and soldier morale, and with relatively secure supply lines, Ukraine became more capable of using its longer-range and more accurate guns and missiles to attack Russian forces. Ukraine wasn’t matching Russia in numbers (estimates are that Ukraine has fired some 4,000-7,000 artillery shells daily), it was using its weapons more effectively.

The fruits were already apparent by around the time of Putin’s “national mobilization” last September, with higher Russian casualties, particularly as the Kremlin’s forces shifted to a more static defense along much of the frontline, bolstering its defensive fortifications. Russian artillery fire also declined in January from its wartime high, in some places by as much as 50 percent as conservation of shells increased in certain sectors, and Ukraine effectively attacked Russian supplies.

In late February, U.S. intelligence estimated that Russia had suffered 189,500-223,000 total casualties, including 35,500-43,000 killed in action and 154,000-180,000 wounded, the most definitive publicly revealed estimate to date. U.S. intelligence observed that Russian casualties had “significantly increased” since the national mobilization, with a high ratio of Russian soldiers killed compared to those who were wounded, chiefly because of almost non-existent battlefield medicine on the part of the Kremlin.

By this May, the U.S. estimated that about 20,000 Russian soldiers had been killed on the battlefield in the first four months of the year alone. National Security Council spokesman retired admiral John Kirby called the numbers “stunning.” U.S. intelligence reported that Russia authorities were urging regional and local governments not to publish obituaries for soldiers killed in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s fear was a repeat of the emergence of some “Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia,” a reference to 1980s grassroots protests that very much contributed to Mikhail Gorbachev’s decision to end the decade-long Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Over a ten-year period from 1979-1989, some 15,000 Soviet troops died and over 50,000 were wounded in Afghanistan. The number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine, in one-tenth of the time, is already over double that.

Many analysts believe that these losses were at the center of the Prigozhin rebellion. In the yearlong battle when Russia moved from Severodonetsk to Bakhmut (a total of 33 miles, or 57 kilometers), Prigozhin’s Wagner forces came to dominate the northeastern Donetsk front, both in fighting and in casualties. That’s when the tensions between Wagner and the Russian military machine began. When the town of Soledar was taken by Russia in January, Prigozhin spoke out, angry that his troops, who shouldered the burden of the fight (and the losses), didn’t get enough credit.

By name and in vulgar terms, Prigozhin attacked Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, then newly installed as the overall battlefield commander in Ukraine, even accusing them of treason. Prigozhin decried the level of casualties and the lack of support for his forces and said that the Russian military was fighting the war the wrong way. But he also sought to align himself with the Russian people against the military bureaucracy. After Christmas, Prigozhin said that “The problem now is that the bureaucrats and those engaging in corruption won’t listen to us now because for New Year’s they are all drinking champagne.” Then he warned of a coming public rebellion, saying that Russian boys were dying in Ukraine while the sons of the elite were “shak[ing] their arses in the sun.”

In the six-month period from the taking of Soledar to the fall of Bakhmut, Wagner losses kept increasing, particularly amongst recruited former convicts from Russia. There was also a significant increase in Wagner soldiers going absent without leave (AWOL), a problem also affecting the Russian army. Ukrainian artillery in particular was exacting a high price against Russia attackers and those Russian soldiers stuck in static defenses. Overall, U.S. intelligence estimated close to 100,000 Russian casualties in the march from Severodonetsk to Bakhmut, a third of them from Wagner. Of some 50,000 Wagner fighters recruited from Russian prisons, some 30,000 were injured, with over 10,000 killed, according to U.S. military estimates. Ninety percent of overall Wagner casualties were assessed to be former prisoners, U.S. intelligence says: poorly trained and hapless soldiers sent on suicide missions against Ukrainian artillery fire.

Facing unsustainable losses, Prigozhin again spoke out, finally undertaking his theatrical mutiny at the end of June, what he called a “march for justice” against the Russian military leadership in Moscow. “Shoigu killed thousands of the most combat-ready Russian soldiers in the first days of the war,” Prigozhin railed against Russian strategy.

“The mentally ill scumbags decided ‘It’s okay, we’ll throw in a few thousand more Russian men as ‘cannon fodder.’ ‘They’ll die under [Ukrainian] artillery fire, but we’ll get what we want’,” he said. “That’s why it has become a protracted war.”

Speaking from Russian military headquarters at Rostov-on-Don at the beginning of his rebellion, he said that overall Russian losses in Ukraine were three to four times higher than what Moscow was publicly admitting, calling the ministry’s low casualty numbers “wild fantasies.” Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian ground forces said Russian casualties were eight to 10 times its own.

Prigozhin also spoke out about the “huge amount of territories” Russia had lost. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with CNN on July 23 “that Ukraine had already taken back about 50 percent of what was initially seized. That said, Russia still holds something like twice the area of Ukraine that it had occupied before the 2022 invasion despite the growing pressure.

“Russia has lost all forward momentum in its fighting in the east,” the senior defense intelligence official writes to Newsweek. “Ukrainian artillery is attriting Russian soldiers in the trenches as Ukrainian infantry is making headway in clearing the prodigious minefields Russia has laid in front of its static defenses. Barring some miracle, Ukraine will continue to inch forward as Putin flounders about trying to bring its guns back into the battle, trying as well to find young men willing to march into certain death.”

On July 1, speaking to the Ditchley Foundation in Britain, CIA Director William Burns said that: “Disaffection with the war will continue to gnaw away at the Russian leadership …” Burns said that soldier and domestic discord created “a once-in-a-generation opportunity for us at CIA” to recruit agents and collect intelligence.

But the bigger picture is that Russia is being pounded into submission by Ukrainian artillery, their own God turning on them, Prigozhin the only voice of truth.

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