By Natasha Bertrand, Oren Liebermann, Alex Marquardt, CNN
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its 11th month, US and Ukrainian officials tell CNN that Russia’s artillery fire is down dramatically from its wartime high, in some places by as much as 75%.
US and Ukrainian officials don’t yet have a clear or singular explanation. Russia may be rationing artillery rounds due to low supplies, or it could be part of a broader reassessment of tactics in the face of successful Ukrainian offenses.
Either way, the striking decline in artillery fire is further evidence of Russia’s increasingly weak position on the battlefield nearly a year into its invasion, US and Ukrainian officials told CNN. It also comes as Ukraine is enjoying increased military support from its western allies, with the US and Germany announcing last week that they will be providing Ukrainian forces for the first time with armored fighting vehicles, as well as another Patriot Defense missile battery that will help protect its skies.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is apparently clambering to shore up domestic political support, US intelligence officials believe, for a war he initially would only describe as a limited “special military operation.”
US officials believe the 36-hour ceasefire Putin ordered in Ukraine last week to allow for the observance of Orthodox Christmas was an attempt to pander to Russia’s extensive Christian population, two people familiar with the intelligence told CNN, as well as an opportunity for Putin to blame Ukrainians for breaking it and paint them as heretical heathens.
‘The bucket is getting smaller’
Much of the domestic opposition Putin and his generals have faced over the handling of the war has come from one of the Russian leader’s closest allies: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the mercenary organization Wagner Group. Prigozhin has complained that the Russian Ministry of Defense has botched the war effort, and that Wagner Group should be given more equipment, authority and autonomy to carry out operations in Ukraine.
But Wagner Group has lost thousands of fighters in Ukraine the last two months alone, a senior US official said.
Russia suffered another setback earlier this month when Ukrainian forces hit a weapons depot in Makiivka in eastern Ukraine, destroying more Russian supplies and killing scores of Russian troops housed nearby. The strike also raised questions among prominent Russian military bloggers about the basic competence of the Russian military brass, which had apparently decided to house hundreds of Russian troops next to an obvious Ukrainian target.
“Maybe this one strike is a drop in the bucket, but the bucket is getting smaller,” a US defense official said, referring to the Russians’ dwindling stockpiles.
To date, questions about Russia’s stockpile of weapons have mostly focused on their precision-guided munitions, such as cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. But US officials said their dramatically reduced rate of artillery fire may indicate that the prolonged and brutal battle has had a significant effect on Russia’s supply of conventional weapons as well.
Last month, a senior US military official said that Russia has had to resort to 40-year-old artillery shells as their supply of new ammo dwindled. To the US, the use of degraded ammunition, as well as the Kremlin’s outreach to countries like North Korea and Iran, was a sign of Russia’s diminished stocks of weaponry.
The rationing of ammunition and lower rate of fire appears to be a departure from Russian military doctrine, which traditionally calls for the heavy bombardment of a target area with massive artillery fire and rocket fire. That strategy played out in cities like Mariupol and Melitopol as Russian forces used the punishing strikes to drive slow, brutal advances in Ukraine.
Officials said the strategy shift could be the doing of the recently installed Russian theater commander, General Sergey Surovikin, who the US believes is more competent than his predecessors.
Ukraine has had little choice but to ration its ammunition since the beginning of the war. Ukrainian troops rapidly burned through their own supply of Soviet-era 152 mm ammunition when the conflict erupted, and while the US and its allies have provided hundreds of thousands of rounds of Western 155 mm ammunition, even this supply has had its limits.
As a result, Ukraine has averaged firing around 4,000-7,000 artillery rounds per day — far fewer than Russia.
‘It looks ridiculous now’
The Russians’ declining rate of fire is not linear, one US defense official noted, and there are days when Russians still fire far more artillery rounds — particularly around the eastern Ukrainian cities of Bakhmut and Kreminna, as well as some near Kherson in the south.
US and Ukrainian officials have offered widely different estimates of Russian fire, with US officials saying the rate has dropped from 20,000 rounds per day to around 5,000 per day on average. Ukraine estimates that the rate has dropped from 60,000 to 20,000 per day.
But both estimates point to a similar downward trend.
While Russia still has more artillery ammunition available than Ukraine does, early US assessments vastly overestimated the amount that Russia had its disposal, a US military official said, and underestimated how well the Ukrainians would do at hitting Russian logistics sites.
It appears now that Russia is focused more on bolstering its defense fortifications, particularly in central Zaporizhzhia, the UK Ministry of Defense reported in its regular intelligence update on Sunday. The movements suggest that Moscow is concerned about a potential Ukrainian offensive either there or in Luhansk, the ministry said.
“A major Ukrainian breakthrough in Zaporizhzhia would seriously challenge the viability of Russia’s ‘land-bridge’ linking Russia’s Rostov region and Crimea,” the ministry said, while Ukrainian success in Luhansk would “undermine Russia’s professed war aim of ‘liberating’ the Donbas.”
Ukraine’s counter-offensives last fall targeting Kherson in the south and Kharkiv in the north resulted in humiliating defeats for Russia — and were aided enormously by sophisticated western weaponry like HIMARS rocket launchers, Howitzer artillery systems and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that the US had previously been reluctant to provide.
“The fact of the matter is we have been self-deterring ourselves for over a year now,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commander of US Army Europe and NATO Allied Land Command and currently a senior advisor for Human Rights First.
“There’s been so much anxiety about the possibility of Russia’s escalation — I mean ten months ago, there was concern about giving Stingers…obviously that’s ridiculous, and it looks ridiculous now.”
Russia’s war with bureaucracy
Tensions between Kremlin defense officials and Wagner Group leaders have also been rising amid public complaints by the mercenaries that they are running low on equipment and reports that their leader, Prigozhin, wants to take control of the lucrative salt mines near Bakhmut.
In a video that ran on Russian state media, Wagner Group fighters complain that they are running low on combat vehicles, artillery shells and ammunition, which is limiting their ability to conquer Bakhmut — shortages Prigozhin then blames on “internal bureaucracy and corruption.”
“This year we will win! But first we will conquer our internal bureaucracy and corruption,” he says in the clip. “Once we conquer our internal bureaucracy and corruption, then we will conquer the Ukrainians and NATO, and then the whole world. 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.”
Prigozhin’s ambitions are not limited to greater political power, however, the US believes. There are also indications that he wants to take control over the lucrative salt and gypsum from mines near Bakhmut, a senior administration official tells CNN.
“This is consistent with Wagner’s modus operandi in Africa, where the group’s military activities often function hand in hand with control of mining assets,” the official said, adding that the US believes these monetary incentives are driving Prigozhin and Russia’s “obsession” with taking Bakhmut.
The official also said that Wagner Group has suffered heavy casualties in its operations near Bakhmut since late November.
“Out of its force of nearly 50,000 mercenaries (including 40,000 convicts), the company has sustained over 4,100 killed and 10,000 wounded, including over 1,000 killed between late November and early December near Bakhmut,” the official said, adding that about 90% of those killed were convicts.
The official said that Russia “cannot sustain these kinds of losses.”
“If Russia does eventually seize Bakhmut, Russia will surely characterize this, misleadingly, as a ‘major victory,” the official added. “But we know that is not the case. If the cost for each 36 square miles of Ukraine [the approximate size of Bakhmut] is thousands of Russians over seven months, this is the definition of Pyrrhic victory.”
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CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis, Haley Britzky, and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.