Consuming ammunition faster than the West is capable of manufacturing it, the Ukrainian Army is facing this winter a war of attrition, in which every artillery shot counts

Message on a shell: this is how Ukrainian soldiers pay tribute to their fallen in combat

MARIA SENOVILLA_ El soldado Anton y su comandante preparan las cargas en el interior de un cañón autopropulsado 2S3, apostado en el frente de combate de Donetsk
MARIA SENOVILLA_ Private Anton and his commander prepare the charges inside a 2S3 self-propelled gun, stationed on the front line in Donetsk

Anton holds his breath as he writes in felt-tip pen on a 152-millimeter shell. The solemnity and silence of that moment contrasts with the roar caused by the cannon of the 2S3 -Soviet- when it fires that same shell against the Russian lines. 

On the inscription could be read the name of a Ukrainian colonel fallen in combat. "She was killed in front of Zaporiyia, it was her last day before she rotated her battalion and took a break to see her family in Kiev; she had a young son."

Such are the dedications that Ukrainian soldiers send to the enemy, although they know that they will never get to read them, because the projectile will jump through the air when it hits its target and those words written in felt-tip pen will be pulverized. However, it is their particular way of paying tribute to the fallen in combat, of saying "this is for you, comrade".

MARIA SENOVILLA_ Anton escribe una dedicatoria, en memoria de una coronel ucraniana caída en combate, en uno de los proyectiles que van a disparar
MARIA SENOVILLA - Anton writes a dedication, in memory of a Ukrainian colonel who fell in combat, on one of the projectiles that are going to be fired

Now that artillery duels have intensified again on almost every front line, it's hard to estimate how many messages are sent per day. "In our position there are days when 15 rounds are fired and there are days when 60 are fired," explains the gun commander of a D-44 gun - also Soviet - positioned a few kilometers from the Russian lines, in the direction of Bajmut. 

During the hours I share with them, the sound of artillery fire is continuous. Outgoing shots fired by the Ukrainians from their positions, and incoming explosions - some very close - returned by the Russian troops. But in the midst of the crossfire, they continue to sign the ammunition they are going to fire.

Alongside the tribute to the fallen, there are dedications that exalt patriotic sentiment: the idea that they are willing to fight until victory. Messages of encouragement for the soldiers themselves, who face their second winter at war with fatigue on their faces. And messages of gratitude too, for those who have not forgotten them and raise funds so that they can buy drones or equipment.

Dedications that raise funds

The dedications on the projectiles that the Ukrainians fire against the Russian positions have crossed borders. In Seville - more than 4,700 kilometers from Donetsk - Diana explains her story from the other side of the phone. She is Ukrainian, has been living in Spain for more than eight years and since the Russian invasion began she has turned to help from afar."There are many friends who are fighting on the front line, and I couldn't just do nothing," she says. She did not expect anything in return for her help, but one day one of her friends sent her a photograph of a shell: "It was dedicated to me, they told me that the brigade was able to buy a car and engines for the boats they use in Kherson with what they had collected in Spain," she continues. On that shell was written "From Diana for Kherson".

MARIA SENOVILLA_ Interior de un cañón autopropulsado 2S3, de diseño soviético, que las tropas ucranianas utilizan en el frente de combate de Donetsk
MARIA SENOVILLA - Interior of a 2S3 self-propelled gun, of Soviet design, used by Ukrainian troops on the Donetsk combat front

The truth is that, throughout this year, the amount of aid that Ukraine received from private citizens from all over the world has plummeted. That is why the soldiers in the trenches appreciate the initiative of people like Diana who, thousands of miles away, continue to do what they can. 

They have also amortized the anecdote of the dedications, and there are already several brigades that label the shells in exchange for a donation. Some of them manage it through their social networks: they receive a small financial support -between 5 and 20 euros-, they sign the projectile with the dedication that the donor wants to put and send the photo before firing it.

Ukrainian troops need more vehicles, more spare parts and more drones than they receive. Zelensky's Defense Ministry does not reach everything, and the brigades acquire what they can on their own. Although the price of these consumables is nothing compared to that of the rounds of ammunition, which now arrive in smaller quantities, and which are becoming more and more necessary every day.

A war of positions

The war in Ukraine has brought the use of artillery - and its importance on the battlefield - back to levels reminiscent of the First World War. And at this time, when the contest is settled in a war of positions, the expenditure of these rounds of ammunition is again on the rise. 

It is true that Russia fires much more than the Ukrainian side, which has learned to secure targets before returning fire. But it is also true that in recent months the Kremlin has managed to acquire huge quantities of ammunition - despite international sanctions - with which it has refilled its arsenals.

MARIA SENOVILLA_ Depósito de munición en el frente de combate, excavado en la tierra, muy cerca de donde está apostada la pieza de artillería ucraniana
MARIA SENOVILLA - Ammunition depot on the combat front, dug into the ground, very close to where the Ukrainian artillery piece is stationed

North Korea announced, a few weeks ago, the shipment of a million projectiles to Moscow; in countries such as Iran or Venezuela, armament factories also supply Putin, and the Russian Federation's own factories work 24 hours a day to replenish the armament consumed in Ukraine. 

Putin's use of this new ammunition has not been long in coming, and since October we have been witnessing the biggest Russian offensive in Ukraine since the capture of Bakhmut in spring. The Donetsk fronts are smoking, especially Avdiivka, where Russia has lost up to 1,000 men a day and a large amount of heavy weapons.

But it is not something that worries the Kremlin, which fights still with the doctrines of the Soviet era where human losses are only numbers, meat to send to the mincer in the hope that it collapses by saturation. That is how they took Bajmut, and that is how they will probably take Avdiivka throughout this winter.

And Zelensky's Armed Forces will need more ammunition to stand up to the Russian artillery over the next few months, when it is highly unlikely that there will be a significant advance by either side, but heavy artillery use is assured.
Thousands of rounds per day

If we multiply the number of artillery positions, by the number of rounds they fire, we get dizzying figures that reflect the ammunition expenditure involved in this war. Ukraine has consumed tens of thousands of shells per month - up to 90,000 per month at the height of the war. And the West does not have the capacity to manufacture at that rate.

In this sense, the US, the European Union and the United Kingdom have increased munitions production to the point of starting up new factories. But the problem is time, production time. The West's stockpiles are running out faster than they are being produced.

MARIA SENOVILLA_ Un cañón autopropulsado ucraniano, después de disparar varias rondas de artillaría contra las líneas rusas en el frente de combate de Donetsk
MARIA SENOVILLA - A Ukrainian self-propelled gun, after firing several artillery rounds against the Russian lines on the Donetsk combat front

Another fact to take into account is that, at the moment, the most manufactured ammunition is 155 millimeters -the caliber most used by NATO-. However, the Ukrainian Army still employs a large number of Soviet-era guns that use 152- and 122-millimeter ammunition in their larger models. 

This means that the defense plans of Kiev's allies also include the goal of renewing their own weapons arsenals. The ammunition that is being sent to Ukraine - as well as the heavy weapons - is largely old material that the various donor countries already had in stock. And what they are doing is renewing this material with more modern and better versions. Thus, at the same time as the Kiev army is being supplied, the European and American armies are being modernized.

Part of the aid destined to Ukraine in the end becomes a good investment for the allied countries. Something necessary, if one takes into account that -to date- the United States has sent more than 42.38 billion euros in military aid to Kiev, the EU has contributed another 25 billion and the United Kingdom more than 6 billion.
The money is running out, again

But despite the fact that this is not entirely disinterested aid and that it brings benefits to donor countries, resources are not infinite. In October, the Pentagon notified by letter that it was running out of money to replace the weapons the U.S. had sent to Ukraine. 

"There is $1.6 billion remaining, out of the $25.9 billion provided by Congress to replenish the stockpile," the missive read. This December, it was the White House which warned that the resources to maintain the costly aid provided to the Zelensky government were running out, and that it was necessary for Congress to approve a spending plan with a new item for Ukraine.

MARIA SENOVILLA_ Carcasas de proyectiles, disparados a lo largo de una mañana, en una de las posiciones de artillería ucranianas desplegadas en el frente de Donetsk
MARIA SENOVILLA - Shells of projectiles, fired throughout a morning, in one of the Ukrainian artillery positions deployed on the Donetsk front

All indications are that this budget will be approved - albeit in extremis - because the US gains more than it loses with its support for Ukraine. In addition to modernizing its military equipment, it has reactivated its defense industry and is acquiring valuable lessons from the Ukrainian war experience. 

There are too many political calculations being made at the moment in offices - both in the United States and in some European Union countries - but what they are not calculating is that all these political decisions have direct repercussions in the trenches, where Ukrainians continue to die. 

Sometimes, the only thing that remains of them is the dedication written on the shells and -unfortunately- these messages are not read in the presidential offices.