Russia ramps up weapons production, using mass quantity to outgun Ukraine

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Russia has ramped up military production by replenishing stocks of standard weapons and ammunition and probably can sustain its onslaught in Ukraine for at least the next two years, analysts say — a sobering assessment for Kyiv, which is short on weapons and soldiers and losing ground on the battlefield.

While the Kremlin is struggling to expand capacity and to develop modern arms that could improve its army’s battlefield performance, it has capitalized on its overwhelming advantage in numbers of soldiers, its ability to arm them with old but reliable weaponry and a willingness to endure heavy casualties.

By recalibrating its economy on a war footing, forcing existing facilities to work in overdrive to produce or refurbish older equipment, and buying parts from Iran, China and North Korea, Russia has made a surprising recovery from its early losses in Ukraine.

“Russia is not producing more of its modern fighting equipment,” said Nikolai Kulbaka, a Russian economist. “But it has been making a lot more of simpler working equipment, rifles, shells, mass weapons for mass soldiers.”

As Western military aid for Kyiv has slowed in recent months, including in the United States, Russian forces have retaken the initiative in Ukraine, where they can now fire artillery and deploy drones at a far higher rate than the Ukrainians.

Russia has rearmed its forces by refurbishing existing gear — much of it dating to the Soviet era. Replacement parts from China, North Korea and Iran are of inconsistent quality, experts said, but procuring them has demonstrated Moscow’s ability to circumvent sanctions.

The Soviet-era equipment, including missiles and guided aerial bombs, has compensated for Russia’s failure, at least so far, to produce and deploy new, advanced weapons such as the T-14 Armata tank that theoretically could rival the U.S.-made Abrams and German-made Leopards that the West has given Ukraine.

U.S. officials initially believed the war in Ukraine had seriously degraded Russia’s military. But Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, the top U.S. commander in Europe, testified in Congress this month that Moscow now had more soldiers than at the start of its invasion, and that its armed forces have “shown an accelerating ability to learn and adapt to battlefield challenges both tactically and technologically.”

Late last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin approved a record increase in military spending for 2024, planning to spend around $115 billion, nearly one-third of the country’s total annual budget and double the amount allocated for the military in 2021, the year before the invasion of Ukraine.

In recent months, top Russian officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, have claimed record numbers, reporting to Putin that the military-industrial complex has quadrupled production of armored vehicles, quintupled the supply of tanks and boosted manufacturing of drones and artillery shells by nearly 17 times.

These numbers, including a claim that 1,500 tanks were built in 2023, cannot be verified because the government does not disclose statistics about military production and the costs of the war and because the military often uses creative accounting, conflating new and rebuilt materiel, to show positive results.

“My impression is that Shoigu’s numbers and the figure of 1,500 tanks supplied over 2023 is technically correct, but it also includes refurbished stuff,” said Michael Gjerstad, land warfare analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank. “There could also be a percentage of tanks that are being cannibalized and their parts used to make other tanks, which could also be added into the statistics.”

Gjerstad said he believes Russia can manufacture up to 330 tanks a year but is actually building half that. Still, Russia managed to replenish about 1,140 tanks that it is estimated to have lost in 2023 by dusting off and refurbishing old armor taken from storage.

Experts note that the supply of existing gear is limited and that a key challenge for Russia is to develop capacity to build new fighting vehicles when it runs out of old models to upgrade.

The last new hull for the T-80 tank was built decades ago. Instead, Russia has gutted and refurbished hundreds that were made more than 50 years ago. But in the fall, Russian military commanders ordered a renewal of production at Omsktransmash, short for Omsk Transport Engineering Plant, where the T-80 is built.

“This is the task at hand,” Alexander Potapov, the CEO of Omsktransmash’s parent company, tank maker Uralvagonzavod, told the state-run Zvezda news outlet, at the time.

In 2019, the plant’s engineers told state media that it takes about a month to remodel one tank.

But Pavel Aksenov, a military expert and defense correspondent for the BBC’s Russian service, said the effort so far had yielded nothing. “They have not been able to restart this serial manufacturing,” Aksenov said. “It is a lot easier to boost the rates of existing production.”

It is similarly unlikely that Russia can supply its army with more modern hardware, like the T-14 Armata tank, which debuted with an array of new fighting vehicles at the 2015 Victory Day parade and infamously got stuck during rehearsals.

In early 2023, Russian state media published reports citing unnamed military officials that the Armata had been tested on Ukrainian front lines, prompting speculation it would soon be supplied to units there.

But last month, the head of Russia’s defense manufacturer, Rostec, Sergei Chemezov, said the Armata will not be deployed in Ukraine because of its high cost.

“Of course, it is much superior to other tanks in terms of functionality, but it is too expensive,” Chemezov said, according to state media. “Therefore, the army is unlikely to use it now. It’s easier to buy T-90.”

Neither the manufacturer, Uralvagonzavod, nor officials have disclosed the cost of the tank, but in 2011, Russian experts estimated it to be around $7.9 million, compared with about $3.6 million for the T-90S modification.

Aksenov said there is no proof that production of the Armata was ever finalized.

“They didn’t have enough time to nail it down before the war,” he said. “And although it was logical to begin that level of modernization, because Soviet technology is very outdated, and the invasion showed this, a war requires a different approach.”

“You need reliable equipment steadily supplied to the front line, one that is well-known to the troops, has no childhood diseases and plenty of spare parts to fix it,” Aksenov continued.

Gjerstad said Russia has sought to offset supplies of advanced Western equipment to Ukraine by prioritizing quantity and allocating better tanks to better trained units while supplying older T-55 and T-62 machines to units composed of conscripts and ex-convicts.

“Would you rather have three Fords or one Cadillac,” Gjerstad said. “That’s been the Russian thinking … it’s been like a crutch for them.”

In Ukraine, drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles — are even more vital than tanks.

To increase supply, Russia struck a deal with Iran to set up a factory for Shahed drones in Tatarstan, about 500 miles east of Moscow, and has pushed for a major increase in production of Russia’s Lancet self-detonating drone, manufactured by a subsidiary of Russian arms giant Kalashnikov Concern.

“They’ve been converting old shopping centers into drone production facilities, where they were apparently able to scale up the production quite a bit,” said Fabian Hinz, a drone expert with IISS.

“Russia doesn’t have to become the most innovative army in the world,” Hinz added. “If they managed to get a few systems that work well, like the Lancet, and then they managed to just brutally force through production, that’s already dangerous enough.”

To circumvent sanctions, Russia has forged new supply chains to obtain Western components for high-tech military equipment, with parts routed through Turkey, China and Kazakhstan, experts said, as the West has struggled with enforcement.

A recent report by the Kyiv School of Economics concluded: “Russia continues to be able to acquire large amounts of the inputs that it needs for its military production.” Imports of priority goods are down just 10 percent since sanctions were imposed, the report found.

Russia also has sought basic raw materials. Officials in the Baltics last month called for banning sales of manganese ore, a key component in steel and alloy production, after Estonian media reported that supplies to Russia had surged — often via Estonian and Latvian ports.

Russia has also managed to acquire supplies of nitrocellulose, a compound needed to produce explosives such as artillery shells, according to a report by Ukraine’s Center for Defense Strategies, including from Germany, Taiwan and China.

Catherine Belton in London contributed to this report.

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