Some 560 days have passed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We have repeatedly been reminded about the awfulness of war – the senseless waste of human life and indiscriminate misery caused by the imperial delusions of a self-interested leader.
But the war has also been revealing in other ways. It has repeatedly defied expectations about its scope, impact and duration.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the mistaken belief that he could conquer much of Ukraine in a few days highlighted the depth of his hubris. Since then, his decision to continue the onslaught has revealed the ongoing practical costs to the Russian military.
Now, Moscow’s attempt to meet those costs is also showing how the world is beginning to split along broad, albeit fuzzy, lines of competition that could resonate beyond the Ukraine war.
Russia’s war depends on ammunition
Putin’s problem is a simple one. His forces are running out of ammunition – specifically 155mm and 122mm artillery shells, plus 120-mm mortar rounds. The Russian army relies heavily on them: massive artillery fire is central to its military doctrine.
According to an authoritative report by the Royal United Services Institute, Russia fired a whopping 12 million shells at Ukrainian targets in 2022. Despite a more disciplined approach prompted by dwindling war stocks, it is still likely to go through 7 million rounds in 2023.
Russia’s domestic manufacturing capacity – at around 2.5 million shells per year – makes this usage rate clearly unsustainable, with the war set to enter its third year.
An additional complication is the problem of barrel erosion. Artillery guns gradually warp with use and need to be replaced regularly.
So, if Russia is unable to make up the shortfall between what it is firing and what it can produce, its forces will be unable to blunt Ukraine’s counteroffensive for much longer. This makes Russia’s painstakingly constructed “Surovikin Line” (its defensive network of minefields, trenches and tank traps) likely to be more quickly overrun.
Limited help, so far, from the BRICS
However, finding new ammunition suppliers is tricky. They must have the capability to quickly produce large volumes of shells that match Russian guns. They also need access to explosive energetic materials, especially the base materials for RDX (also known as hexogen) and TNT, the main ingredients in military-grade explosives.
But there are additional limits to the types of suppliers Russia can realistically seek out. Any nation that provides Moscow with ammunition would end up in dangerous diplomatic waters since the US and the broader West have threatened sanctions against those who aid Russia’s war effort.
As such, Russia’s search for ammunition partners has turned up a hodgepodge of aggrieved, ambitious and opportunistic nations. Many of these can be found in the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), which is loosely in favour of a “multipolar” (read: not solely US-dominated) world.
Although China calls Russia its “no limits” partner, it has also reportedly turned down requests to provide Moscow with munitions. But questions remain about its provision of dual-use technologies and electronics to Moscow, not to mention body armour and armoured personnel carriers.
The South African company Rheinmetall Denel Munition (RDM) has recently announced new deals to supply ammunition to both NATO and non-NATO countries.
But President Cyril Ramaphosa had to publicly deny sending Russia shipments of weapons after the US ambassador to South Africa accused his government of doing so. In a report released in September, an independent commission found “no evidence” that a Russian ship was loaded with ammunition before departing Cape Town in late 2022.
And while India has traditionally been heavily dependent on Russia for its military equipment, New Delhi reacted uneasily after Moscow announced in March it would be unable to meet its arms delivery commitments due to the war.
Other partners emerging
Beyond the BRICS, North Korea has been the most promising candidate to meet Russia’s ammunition needs, since it can mass produce 155mm artillery shells.
This has sent the worrying signal that Russia is preparing to abandon its participation in UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. The sanctions ban the trade of military equipment and high-end technologies.
Given Moscow’s critical need for arms, North Korea will find itself in the unusual position of having the upper hand if the meeting goes ahead. These negotiations could easily progress from simple financial transactions to the provision of Russian systems for North Korea’s nuclear, guided missile and submarine programs.
And in April, the Egyptian government was forced to deny accusations it intended to secretly ship some 40,000 rockets to Russia to “avoid problems with the West”.
What this means for global competition
What these nations have in common is that they are all either hostile to the United States, ambivalent towards it, or prepared to have a bet both ways.
Both Iran and Egypt were invited to join the BRICS group last month, along with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina and Ethiopia.
BRICS is by no means a well-developed organisation. It is geographically disparate and has no charter or secretariat to steer a coherent agenda for its work.
But it is reflective of the gradual coming together of nations favouring alternatives to the rules-based order, who tend to equate it with US hegemony. And, like any emergent rival bloc, what it lacks in architecture, it makes up for in potential. Adjusted for purchasing power, the BRICS overtook the G7 in 2023 in terms of total share of global GDP, although its members still lag far behind the G7 members on measures like GDP per capita.
Russia’s ammunition woes have certainly reinforced its desire to woo the BRICS. That alone is unlikely to send shivers down the spines of Western policy planners. Yet, it is a reminder that Moscow is continually seeking to counter Western influence where it can, especially in countries where it perceives it to be vulnerable.
It has also been doing so through the presence of the Wagner group in the resource-rich areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. And Russia eagerly promotes anti-West narratives in places where they resonate among sections of society, like South Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Importantly, the same tactics are being adopted by China, albeit in a more muted form.
While Russia’s ammunition woes seem to be an isolated affair, how it seeks to mobilise support among like-minded nations is important.
The more it looks for support in areas where Western influence is muted or tenuous, the broader the competition will become between those favouring a US-led international order and others interested in exploring alternatives.
And on that basis, Russia’s war in Ukraine takes on even greater significance. Instead of a conflict that fits within clear regional boundaries, it is increasingly becoming a war with global ramifications.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Matthew Sussex, Australian National University.
Matthew Sussex has received funding from the Australian Research Council, the Fulbright Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, the Lowy Institute and various Australian government departments and agencies.