Europe's short ammunition supply blunting Ukrainian firepower, warns Estonia

Defence chief Hanno Pevkur tells The National that western powers' slow artillery-shell production has allowed Russia time to build strong defences

Ukrainian troops fire a howitzer towards Russian troops in Donetsk but it is said they need more ammunition. Reuters
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Europe remains considerably short of supplying the promised one million rounds of artillery required for Ukraine to defeat Russia, Estonia’s Defence Minister has told The National.

Hanno Pevkur said the slow pace of delivering 155mm shells, in particular, had given Russia enough time to build substantial defence systems against which Ukraine is now battling.

The longer it takes Europe to produce the shells, the longer the war will drag on and the harder Ukraine’s task will be with mounting casualties, he warned. But helped by a larger ammunition stockpile, the counter-offensive could gain momentum.

“When you have a snowball, you go up the mountain and you throw it down,” he said. “Then there are two options, either it ends up in the valley as a snowball or it turns into an avalanche. I'm hoping Ukraine’s offensive turns into the avalanche.”

During the most intense period of the war, Russia fired more than 50,000 rounds a day.

“Just to put that to scale, Europe can basically produce yearly as much as Russia used in 10 days,” Mr Pevkur said. “We need to ramp up the European production because we don't have enough ammunition.”

Estonia has pushed the “one million rounds” initiative to pressurise European powers into producing more ammunition which is seen as key to penetrating Russian lines.

Mr Pevkur said only a quarter of that target had been produced to date – and not even all of that had been delivered to Ukraine.

With the success of Ukraine’s offensive still uncertain, he said it was time for Europe to decide whether it should risk digging into national stockpiles or buy from third countries such as South Korea.

“Are we ready to say that when we are not able to produce rounds ourselves that we can buy from third countries to send to Ukraine?” he said.

EU countries needed to “bring more money to the defence industry” given the Russian threat level, he said.

Ukraine’s offensive has been slow with high casualties, in part because of the lack of ammunition to penetrate the trenches.

“Collectively we let Russia build these defence lines,” Mr Pevkur said. “Ukraine can do more with more but it is extremely painful, extremely difficult for them to go through.”

Mr Pevkur, 46, spoke to The National at the biennial DSEI (Defence and Security Equipment International) where he had high-level conversations with executives at Nammo, a Norwegian defence company, and Rheinmetall, a German firm, about increasing ammunition production.

While Estonia has spent 1.3 per cent of its GDP in supporting Ukraine, that included sending its entire stock of 24 FH70 artillery pieces, other Nato countries needed to do more, he said.

“They need to dig into their own stocks but the question is how big a risk are we ready to take in order to send to Ukraine what they need at the moment because they are fighting for our freedom.”

While Ukraine needed F-16 fighters and US Abrams tanks, “artillery is still the key” in the current war.

BAE Systems, the British defence firm, also announced on Tuesday it had received a £410 million ($477 million) UK government contract that would see it increase eightfold the number of 155mm shells being made at its Newcastle factory.

Estonia’s preparedness and bellicose approach comes from sharing a 300-kilometre border with Russia and first-hand knowledge of Moscow’s malign policies. This has also led to a British brigade being deployed there as part of Nato's "enhanced forward presence".

On a daily basis the country suffers cyber-attacks on its infrastructure “in the tens”, the minister said, while also condemning Russia’s “barbaric” actions in Ukraine.

“Russia does not care about their own people, when Russians lose one million this is just a number on paper,” Mr Pevkur said. “They are still Barbarians, as they were in the Middle Ages. They kill, destroy, conquer and move on and don’t care about civilians.”

Updated: September 13, 2023, 6:18 AM