Opinion | The West Leaves Ukraine Outgunned Against Russia

Opinion | The West Leaves Ukraine Outgunned Against Russia

Ukrainian civilians are “dying in our sight, 100 meters away,” and “we can’t get near to them” amid the barrage of Russian shelling,

Mamuka Mamulashvili

says. “They’re losing hands, legs. Sometimes we cannot even find the parts of civilians who were bombed. . . . It’s not one incident. We are seeing it every day.”

Mr. Mamulashvili, 44, is commander of the Georgian Legion of Ukraine’s Armed Forces. He oversees special operations targeting Russian command centers and logistics. The job puts him and his men close to the front line, where they witness Russia’s brutal tactics firsthand. “We are permanently bombed,” he says. “They’re shelling mostly blocks where there are more people, more populated areas. It’s the so-called Russian strategy: to kill everybody and then get inside.”

Ukraine is smaller but nimbler than its enemy, and in the first phase of the war it inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians as it drove them back from around Kyiv. But Russia has adjusted during the second phase of the war by hiding its men behind its fearsome artillery. “Russian artillery has been the decisive factor, but only because it’s had to be the decisive factor,” says

Mason Clark,

a senior analyst and Russia team lead at the Institute for the Study of War.

Russia has at least 10 times as many artillery and missile systems as Ukraine, and in some places on the front line the disparity is closer to 20 to 1, former Defense Minister

Andriy Zagorodnyuk


With a range of hundreds of miles Russian missiles can strike anywhere in Ukraine. Recent attacks in the western region of Lviv were a short distance from the Polish border. On June 27, President

Volodymyr Zelensky

estimated that Russia had used “almost 2,800 different cruise missiles” and “hundreds of thousands” of air bombs and rockets against Ukraine.

In contrast, Ukraine’s Western partners have imposed political constraints on the use of donated systems for attacks on Russian territory, and the range of Ukraine’s weapons is limited even on its own soil. Ukraine’s surface-to-surface systems can reach some 75 miles away at maximum with its Vilkha and Tochka missiles, but those are in short supply, Mr. Zagorodnyuk says. Along much of the front line, Ukraine fights with howitzers that have a range of only some 15 miles. Russia often relies on similar systems, but its ground-based rockets can also reach much farther into Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Russia can produce bullets, shells and, more slowly, missiles to replace what it has used in this war. Ukraine lacks such regenerative capabilities, and as Kyiv makes the transition from Soviet-era equipment to NATO weaponry, it becomes wholly reliant on Western support. Ukraine needs weapons systems and ammunition “like, yesterday,” says Brig. Gen.

Hennadi Shapovalov,

who oversees military cooperation between the Ukrainian armed forces and its Western partners. In his assessment, the delays are “completely a political problem.” Poland, Slovakia and the Baltics have responded to the war with appropriate urgency, he says. The U.S. has been supportive but slow to act. Germany’s hesitation has been particularly frustrating, though there have been recent signs of improvement.

The disparity in quantity and range of munitions has serious battlefield consequences. When Ukrainians want to take out enemy command posts or supply depots, they have to get close, jeopardizing lives and equipment. “It’s impossible to move artillery systems on the front line and not be seen by anyone,” Mr. Mamulashvili says. “As soon as they detect our concentration, they’re bombing us.”

On the battlefield, Ukrainians are using four U.S.-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or Himars, which have a range of some 50 miles. Four more are expected to arrive soon. In recent days Ukraine has used its Himars to strike Russian weapons depots and fuel-storage facilities, and the Pentagon last week approved the provision of four additional Himars, bringing the total delivered or promised to 12.

Ukrainian officials say they need about 100 Himars. Meanwhile, a U.S. Senate source told me the tranche that included the first four Himars included fewer than 20 missiles per launcher, though a subsequent tranche included significantly more. The Biden administration has said it would provide additional ammunition but hasn’t disclosed specifics.

With less ammunition to use, “the Ukrainians have to be much more careful, much more selective, and they can’t hit the same number of targets,” says

Fred Kagan,

director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. The Russians often have multiple posts behind the front line performing the same supportive functions, so even a successful Ukrainian strike on a target may not cause much disruption.

Meanwhile Russians can lob far more shells and rockets at Ukrainian targets that support front-line operations, and their range advantage means they can conduct these attacks from a distance where Ukrainians can’t easily hit back. Russia’s firepower is “absolutely not precise,” but “they’re just coming one, next one,” says

Yuri Tkachenko,

a board member and part of the Kyiv ground team for the nonprofit Ukraine Aid Operations.

His group raises money for equipment like medical kits, body armor and other protective gear for Ukrainian soldiers, then delivers it to military units near the front line. Mr. Tkachenko calls me en route to Donetsk and describes how Russian artillery has held up deliveries of much-needed equipment. Once recently, “for two hours, we were sitting, waiting. They were shelling for two hours nonstop,” Mr. Tkachenko says. “You don’t know—will they miss, or will they get you?” His teams haven’t been hit so far. “But we come very close.”

The disparity also means the Russians can aggressively attack Ukrainian units and take out soldiers as they approach the front. In recent weeks some Ukrainian soldiers “say it feels like Russians have built a munitions-productions factory on the front,” says

Yuriy Sak,

an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister. The invaders face no comparable reciprocal attack.

The Russians can also sometimes strike behind the Ukrainians after they arrive at the front line. Near Severodonetsk the invaders used artillery to target a highway and bridges behind the Ukrainians in an effort to isolate them, disrupt their communications, and impede the flow of supplies and any withdrawal.

The Russians’ scorched-earth approach has also caused significant civilian casualties, says

Samer Attar,

a Chicago physician who returned to the U.S. over the Independence Day weekend from Zhaporizhzha region, where he was operating on wounded civilians and soldiers. “You’re seeing civilians with military injuries, and these are just kids and moms and dads,” he says. He saw mangled limbs, ripped bellies, exposed intestines, and one patient who endured a blast “so severe it pushed his eyeballs out.”

A prompt rescue “can mean the difference between life and death” or “the difference between saving a limb and losing a limb,” Dr. Attar says. The unrelenting barrage of artillery “really impedes the paramedics, those on the front lines, that have to brave shelling and fire to get to the wounded” and move them to help.

The West has been too slow, and the need to even out the artillery disparity is urgent. Long-range artillery in particular has the potential to “change the war’s direction,” Mr. Mamulashvili says. “We are still standing and waiting when the United States and other countries will help defend democracy. . . . We are still waiting and going through bureaucracy. We could put one camera on the front line and let politicians see how many people will die during their hesitation.”

Ms. Melchior is a Journal editorial page writer.

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