Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 17 March 2024


A Small Ex-Soviet Satellite State Goes Hunting for Arms for Ukraine

PRAGUE—Ukraine is about to receive large shipments of the ammunition it needs most. It won’t come from the U.S., or any other pillar of NATO. 

Rather, the deal was clinched by a landlocked country of 10 million people sandwiched between Germany and Poland and known more for its picturesque capital and famed beer than its military prowess. 

The Czech Republic, a former Soviet satellite state with little sympathy for Russia’s efforts to restore its lost empire, is one of Ukraine’s most ardent supporters. By activating relations dating back to the Cold War, it has sourced around 800,000 artillery shells from a diverse coalition of suppliers spanning the globe and identified another 700,000 that could be secured with extra funds.

The shells include 300,000 Soviet-standard shells and around 500,000 Western-made rounds, to be delivered in batches by the end of the year. More shells will be available as funding comes in, the Czech government said. Altogether, Czech officials say around 3 billion euros, equivalent to $3.3 billion, would secure around 1.5 million shells—a fraction of the $60 billion aid package for Ukraine now stranded in the U.S. congress.

The shipments, which Czech officials say could start reaching Ukraine within weeks, come as shortages of ammunition and troops are forcing Ukraine’s battered army to pull back in places faced with a Russian onslaught

The Ukrainian forces are so depleted that they now only fire around two shells for every 10 Russia fires at them, according to Western intelligence estimates.

The Ukrainians aren’t running out of courage, but “they are running out of ammunition,” said Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

NATO’s failure to provide Ukraine with enough ammunition stems from a lack of political will, alliance chief Jens Stoltenberg said. Photo: kenzo tribouillard/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Russia, by contrast, having ramped up domestic manufacturing and tapped allies such as North Korea, Iran, and Belarus for supplies, is now both outgunning Ukraine on the battlefield and outproducing NATO.

Some military analysts say Ukraine needs up to 200,000 shells of various calibers each month to push back against the renewed onslaught. The supplies organized by the Czech Republic could help Ukraine’s defenders hold back Russia’s advance while the West slowly ramps up its own weapons production.

“The Czech initiative will help Ukraine stabilize the front and regain the upper hand,” said Nico Lange, former chief of the executive staff at the German defense ministry. 

Czech officials behind the discreet procurement plan said their effort started shortly before Russia’s full-scale invasion two years ago and largely circumvented the ponderous bureaucracies of NATO and the European Union.

Unlike the U.S., France or Germany, which mainly focused on ramping up domestic production to supply Ukraine, Czech officials said their initiative focused on sourcing existing materiel. Czech officials began quietly crisscrossing the globe, clinching sales deals and negotiating export licenses from scores of manufacturing nations.

The Czech officials said the country’s past as a former Soviet satellite was an unexpected boon. It gifted the country both a substantial armaments industry with global customers and good relations with many nations in the Global South with large stockpiles of Soviet-era weapons and the capacity to produce more.

The officials are coy about where the shells are coming from but say suppliers include some allies of Russia. By contrast, similar entreaties by the U.S. and Western Europeans to potential suppliers in Africa, Asia and Latin America have been rebuffed, according to Western officials. 

NATO and EU officials have publicly backed the Czech initiative in recent days. Germany has so far pledged over €500 million, which is by far the largest commitment of all participants, Czech officials said.

The Czech Republic’s approach was to act as a middleman, said Tomas Kopecny, the Czech special envoy for Ukraine who helped negotiate the deal. Prague approached nations it knew to have either manufacturing capacity or compatible ammunition in storage and connected them with a Western country that would place an order and pay for the shipment.

Part of a mobile howitzer at an arms factory in the Czech Republic. Photo: piroschka van de wouw/Reuters
Tomas Kopecny, the Czech special envoy for Ukraine, helped negotiate the shells deal. Photo: Pavel Vraga

The Czech Republic would then organize the logistics, with shipments going either through its own borders or through third countries, blurring any direct link between the country of origin and Ukraine so as not to expose the supplier to Moscow’s ire.

“Confidentiality is key here: We talk and will talk to anyone, no matter what their allegiance or political stance is—with a very few exceptions, such as North Korea,” said Tomas Pojar, the Czech government’s national security adviser.

Prague’s efforts exposed a discrepancy between some governments’ friendly attitude to Russia in public and their openness to doing business with Ukraine’s allies in private, said Jan Jires, deputy minister of defense.

“If you come with a pile of money they are interested, and Czechia is seen as neutral compared with the U.S., which is often polarizing,” said Jakub Janda, head of the European Values Center for Security Policy, a Prague-based think tank, using an alternate English-language name for the country.

So far, the Czech Republic has secured funding for the first tranche of around 300,000 shells. Among the donors are Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark. The U.S. isn’t part of the buyers’ club at this stage.

The 155mm shell is the most requested artillery munition of the war in Ukraine. WSJ’s Alistair MacDonald explains why it is so popular and whether the U.S. and others can cope with the demand. Photo: Viacheslav Ratynskyi/Reuters

“We are like hobbits—small and peaceful, but in a moment of crisis we jump to forge alliances with much more powerful countries and deliver results,” Kopecny said, referring to the diminutive heroes of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” saga.

Kopecny, wearing socks depicting the Kremlin engulfed in flames, said the Czech Republic’s past as a Soviet satellite informed his country’s tough line on the war. Its government sees a Russian defeat in Ukraine as imperative and doesn’t believe in negotiating with President Vladimir Putin

While larger Western powers such as the U.S. have debated the dangers of sending new types of weapons to Ukraine for fear of provoking Moscow, the Czech Republic began early on to deliver main battle tanks, rocket launchers and large artillery pieces to Kyiv. The launch vehicle for the missiles that sank Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskva, was delivered by the Czech Republic.

“It was frustrating to see countries who are far wealthier and more powerful being inactive when it was a matter of life and death for Ukrainians, and by consequence also for us as well,” Kopecny said.

Lange said the success of the Czech initiative was a lesson for larger NATO members that have focused on ramping up their own weapons production, a slow process that is now constricting supplies for Ukraine.

U.S. production increases have been slowed by the budget impasse in Congress. America will have the capacity to produce nearly 70,000 shells a month by late 2024, rising to 80,000 a month by mid-2025, according to Doug Bush, the Army’s assistant secretary for acquisitions, logistics and technology.

From left, Jan Jires, Czech deputy minister of defense, Tomas Pojar, the Czech government’s national security adviser, and Karel Rehka, the head of the Czech Army. Photo: Ondrej Deml/Zuma Press

European arms manufacturers are all increasing production, but due to regulation, supply-chain issues, a lack of government financing and a shortage of labor, a significant uptick in production isn’t expected until late next year or early 2026. In the EU, expanding an existing ammunition factory takes around two years, and erecting a new one around five, according to officials and industry representatives from several countries.

The failure of NATO allies to provide Ukraine with enough ammunition isn’t a question of capacity, but one of political will, NATO’s Stoltenberg told reporters Thursday.

The EU has said that its arms companies will be able to produce 1.4 million shells a year by the end of 2024 and two million in late 2025. Up to 50% of all EU defense production was being exported to third countries other than Ukraine until mid-2023, and EU officials have publicly called for defense companies to give priority to exports to Kyiv. The U.K., one of the world’s largest shell producers, also says its capacity to produce shells will have increased eightfold, by early 2025, from the levels before Moscow’s full-scale invasion.

By comparison, Russia, despite being under severe economic sanctions, is poised to start making nearly three times as much high-caliber ammunition as the U.S. and Europe this year, according to Western intelligence estimates. Russia’s overall artillery production, including rockets, will plateau at three million rounds a year, according to the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

“Western initiatives have been hindered by…a desire to produce in Europe or the U.S. because countries wanted to combine supporting Ukraine with supporting their industries,” Jires said. “Which is a legitimate goal because we need to rearm ourselves but that’s not what’s needed for the immediate relief of Ukraine.” 

Laurence Norman, Alistair MacDonald and Dan Michaels contributed to this article.

Write to Bojan Pancevski at

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