The Butcher

Berlin drives up ammunition production for Ukraine. Experts say 5,000 artillery shells a day are needed. Kiev can’t find enough soldiers for the front. A new commander-in-chief: nicknamed the “Butcher”.

KIEV/BERLIN/UNTERLUESS (own report) – The Inspector General of the Bundeswehr, Carsten Breuer, has held talks in Kiev with the new commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Olexander Syrskyj. The discussions covered future German arms supplies. Syrskyi had replaced the previous army chief Valery Zaluzhnyi a week earlier. Zaluzhnyi’s relationship with President Volodymyr Zelensky had been considered irreparably damaged since autumn 2023, especially after Zaluzhnyi had declared Ukraine’s June offensive a failure. Indeed, in his view, formulated in an article for the British Economist magazine, the war was de facto unwinnable. Zelensky has now replaced him with Syrskyi, a military leader who is nicknamed the “butcher”. He has a reputation for ruthlessly sending large numbers of soldiers to certain death. His appointment has unsurprisingly been greeted with dismay by elements in the Ukrainian military. The armed forces are already suffering from a shortage of personnel. It is reported that units on the front line have barely 35 per cent of the personnel numbers originally planned. Ukrainian forces also lack ammunition. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is expected to attend the laying of the foundation stone for another Rheinmetall ammunition factory in Unterlüß on 12 January.

5,000 artillery shells per day

Experts estimate that Ukraine needs 1.8 million rounds per year of the NATO standard 155 calibre alone. As military specialist Gustav Gressel from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and data analyst Marcus Welsch write in a recent study, 5,000 standard artillery shells per day are required to ensure “minimal defence” against the Russian armed forces. However, adding up the existing supply commitments by Europe and the United States, it turns out that Kiev can only expect to receive 1.3 million standard artillery shells in 2024. That comes to less than 3,600 per day.[1] Moreover, if deliveries from the United States were cancelled because of Congress refusing to approve the necessary funds, the Ukrainian armed forces would lack an additional half a million projectiles. Shortages are already likely to be particularly acute in the first few months of this year. The fact is that efforts to ramp up defence industry capacities across the EU are taking longer than expected. In March 2023, the EU promised Kiev one million shells within one year. It is now clear that this will only be achieved by the end of 2024. By the end of 2023, only around 300,000 shells had been delivered.[2]

Buying US ammunition?

Rheinmetall, the largest manufacturer of standard artillery shells in Europe, is making a major contribution to the upscaling of ammunition production. The Rheinmetall Group’s CEO, Armin Papperger, says his factories will be able to increase output to between 450,000 and 500,000 shells this year.[3] However, Papperger is sceptical about the likelihood of Europe expanding production to a total of one million artillery shells within 2024. In 2025, Rheinmetall aims to reach the 700,000 shells-per-year mark with the help of its new plant in Unterlüß. It is planned to come on stream next year and produce some 200,000 shells annually. However, this projection will not help to eliminate the current ammunition crisis faced by the Ukrainian armed forces. Experts like Gressel and Welsch, as well as various German politicians, are now urging a halt to all ammunition exports to other countries so those supplies can be diverted to the war in Ukraine. Fearing a refusal by the US Congress to provide the necessary funds for Kiev’s military supply needs, European hawks argue for a policy of buying ammunition from the US defence industry out of the EU budget. The Chair of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael Roth (SPD), is quoted as saying that that Berlin and Brussels should consider “financing ammunition procurement from the United States and other non-EU countries.”[4]

Running out of soldiers

Even more serious for the Ukrainian army than the lack of ammunition is no doubt the current shortage of soldiers. Last week, the Washington Post reported from the front, where commanders complained that their units had an average of only 35 per cent of their intended strength.[5] One commander stated that instead of the usual 200-plus infantrymen, not even forty were currently deployed in his battalion. The few new recruits to units are, by all accounts, poorly trained and often lack motivation. In addition, the average age of the troops has been rising. The Times of London made a comparison in January: the average age of soldiers in the US armed forces was 28 in 2021; while the figure for soldiers in the British army was put at 31 in 2023. The estimate for Ukraine’s forces is now 43 years of age.[6] A front-line commander whose unit is fighting near Kupyansk has put the average age of his battalion at 45. Government advisors in Kiev have even reported on troops with an average age of 54 trying to storm Russian positions. Problems are reportedly also arising from untrained soldiers struggling to carry the man-portable missiles systems.

New commander-in-chief

This is the situation in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky replaced the commander-in-chief of the armed forces last week. Valery Zaluzhnyi had contradicted Zelensky in an article in The Economist magazine in the autumn by declaring that the Ukrainian offensive launched in June 2023 was a failure and the war had become effectively unwinnable. At the time, his stance was also associated with voices in the West seeking to consider a ceasefire in the context of a frozen front ( reported [7]). Since then the relationship between Zelensky and Zaluzhnyi was considered irreparably broken, not least because Zaluzhnyi is far more popular than Zelensky according to polls, although Zaluzhnyi – an open admirer of World War Two pro-Nazi figures like Stepan Bandera – appointed the leader of the fascist Right Sector as his advisor. At the end of 2023, the commander-in-chief had an approval rating of 88 per cent while the president, scoring only 66 per cent, is on a downward trend. Zelensky announced Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal back on 29 January, but decided to postpone the dismissal due to protests from within the armed forces. There have reportedly also been objections from Washington and London.[8] On 31 January, US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland arrived in Kiev for talks centring on the further conduct of the war.[9] In the middle of last week, Zelensky finally removed Zaluzhnyi from office and handed the job over to the commander of ground forces, Olexander Syrskyi.

“We’re finished”

At the end of last week, the Inspector General of Bundeswehr, Carsten Breuer, met with Syrskyi in Kiev for initial talks. The latter is taking up his new post with a major handicap: a poll showed that only two per cent of the population had wanted Zaluzhnyi to be replaced[10] – while Syrskyi is said to be very unpopular in the armed forces. The general has a notorious reputation for ruthlessly sending his soldiers to certain death in large numbers. The fighting for Bachmut is regularly cited as a case in point. His orders have earned him the epithet of the “Butcher.”[11] Observers fear that he will probably continue to grind down countless soldiers in future,[12] especially to appease Zelensky’s desperation to achieve military successes at any cost. However, further heavy losses in the already disastrously depleted state of the Ukrainian armed forces would be fatal. Initial comments from Ukrainian military personnel voicing their views on the internet speak volumes: “We’re finished!” Details of the talks between Germany’s Carsten Breuer and Syrskyi have not been revealed. All we know is that Breuer was briefed on the current situation at the front and that he discussed future German arms supplies with Syrskyi.[13]


[1] Konrad Schuller: Der Ukraine geht die Munition aus. Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung 11.02.2024.

[2] Florian Neuhann: EU muss Lieferziel um neun Monate korrigieren. 30.01.2024.

[3], [4] Konrad Schuller: Der Ukraine geht die Munition aus. Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung 11.02.2024.

[5] Isabelle Khurshudyan, Anastacia Galouchka: Front-line Ukrainian infantry units report acute shortage of soldiers. 08.02.2024.

[6] Marc Bennetts, Kateryna Malofieieva: Ukraine’s average soldier is 43. How can they keep Putin at bay? 20.01.2024.

[7] See also: Heikle Gespräche.

[8] Maxim Tucker, Vladyslav Golovin: Zelensky U-turns after telling Ukraine’s top general he would be sacked. 31.01.2024.

[9] US Diplomat Says Russia Should Expect ‘Surprises’ On Battlefield. 31.01.2024.

[10] Marc Bennetts: Klitschko hits out at Zelensky’s ‘plan to reset’ top team. 06.02.2024.

[11] Alexander Ward, Matt Berg: Zaluzhny is out, the ‘butcher’ is in. 08.02.2024.

[12] Maxim Tucker: New Ukraine commander ready to sacrifice more men, say army officers. 09.02.2024.

[13] Generalinspekteur der Bundeswehr trifft in Kiew neuen Oberbefehlshaber. 10.02.2024.