In Rush to Arm Ukraine, Weapons Are Bought but Not Delivered, or Too Broken to Use

Ukraine has paid contractors hundreds of millions of dollars for weapons that have not been delivered, and some of the much-publicized arms donated by its allies have been so decrepit that they were deemed fit only to be cannibalized for spare parts.

Ukrainian government documents show that as of the end of last year, Kyiv had paid arms suppliers more than $800 million since the Russian invasion in February 2022 for contracts that went completely or partly unfulfilled.

Two people involved in Ukraine’s arms purchasing said that some of the missing weapons had eventually been delivered, and that in other cases brokers had refunded the money. But as of early this spring, hundreds of millions of dollars had been paid — including to state-owned companies — for arms never materialized, one of these people said.

“We did have cases where we paid money and we didn’t receive,” Volodymyr Havrylov, a deputy defense minister working on arms procurement, said in a recent interview. He said the government this year had begun analyzing its past purchases and excluding problematic contractors.

Problems are inevitable in an arms-acquisition frenzy the size of Ukraine’s. Since Russia invaded last year, Western allies have sent Ukraine tens of billions of dollars worth of weapons. As of last week, the United States alone had committed about $40 billion worth of military aid (and more in financial and humanitarian assistance), and European allies have also contributed tens of billions. In addition, Ukraine has spent billions of dollars of its own on the private arms market.

Many of the transfers from Western allies have involved modern weapons like American air defense systems that have proven highly effective against Russian drones and missiles. But in other cases allies have provided stockpiled equipment that, at best, needed extensive overhauls.

As much of 30 percent of Kyiv’s arsenal is under repair at any given time — a high rate, defense experts said, for a military that needs every weapon it can get for its developing counteroffensive.

Mechanics repairing a military transport vehicle at a workshop in Kyiv last month. As much of 30 percent of the country’s arsenal is under repair at any given time.Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times

“If I was the head of an army that has gifted kit to Ukraine, I’d be professionally very embarrassed if I turned stuff around in bad order,” said Ben Barry, a land warfare expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

A recent delivery of 33 self-propelled howitzers donated by the Italian government provides a case in point. Videos showed smoke billowing from the engine of one, and engine coolant leaking from another.

Italy’s Defense Ministry said in a statement that the vehicles had been decommissioned years ago but that Ukraine had asked for them anyway, “to be overhauled and put into operation, given the urgent need for means to face the Russian aggression.”

Ukrainian government documents show that its Defense Ministry paid $19.8 million to an American arms dealer, the Tampa-based Ultra Defense Corporation, to have the 33 howitzers repaired. In January, 13 of those howitzers were shipped to Ukraine but arrived “not suitable for combat missions,” according to one of the documents.

Officials in Kyiv accused the American company of failing to finish a job that was supposed to be completed by late December. “The American company, offering its services, had no prior intention to fulfill its obligations,” Ukraine’s defense procurement director, Volodymyr Pikuzo, wrote in a Feb. 3 letter to the Pentagon’s inspector general.

Matthew Herring, the company’s chief executive, strongly denied the accusation. “Every single one of them worked when we delivered them,” he wrote in a text message this month, saying that the Ukrainians had not properly maintained the howitzers after they were handed over. That included the one with a coolant leak, which he said had “magically appeared after delivery in Ukraine.”

The Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating the matter, according to a United States defense official and an American who has worked with Ukraine to procure weapons.

A Ukrainian artillery team preparing to fire at a Russian ammunition depot across the Dnipro River last year. When Russia invaded, Kyiv found itself desperate for weapons and ammunition.Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

Ukrainian officials have mostly refrained from complaining about broken equipment, so as not to embarrass their benefactors. “There were issues of quality to some of the howitzers, but we have to keep in mind that it was a gift,” Mr. Havrylov said.

But the government in Kyiv has grown weary, another senior Ukrainian official said, of being told that it has enough Western weapons, when some arrive in poor or unusable condition, relegated from combat to be cannibalized for parts.

The official, like some others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss a sensitive security matter that risks causing friction between allies. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry declined to comment.

Problems with arming the military are as old as post-Soviet Ukraine itself, pulled for decades between competing factions with different visions for the country’s arms industry.

After Ukraine gained independence in 1991, it made considerable sums by selling off items from its extensive stocks of Soviet-era weapons. The country’s arsenal shrank, particularly under President Viktor F. Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian leader in the early 2010s. In the years after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, a heated debate erupted over whether and to what extent to reinvigorate its arms industry.

But changes were slow, and when Russia invaded last year Kyiv found itself desperate for weapons and ammunition. Its leaders scrambled to find arms wherever they could. Brokers, many unreliable, flooded Ukraine with offers, said Mr. Havrylov.

The documents obtained by The New York Times, generated by a government audit this year, showed that some of the most valuable sets of undelivered contracts are between the Defense Ministry and state-owned Ukrainian arms companies that function as independent brokers. In recent months, the ministry has sued at least two of those state firms over unfulfilled contracts, and Ukraine recently announced overhauls aimed at making those companies more efficient.

There have been problems with Western-donated equipment as well, which contributed to some of its being delivered so belatedly or unpredictably as to complicate planning for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

Ukrainian soldiers camouflaging an M777 howitzer after firing it toward Russian positions last year.Credit…Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

A Pentagon inspector general’s report released in late May illustrates some of the problems.

Last summer, an American Army unit was ordered to ship 29 Humvees to Ukraine from a depot at Camp Arifjan, a base in Kuwait. Although the unit’s leaders had previously said that all but one of the Humvees were “fully mission capable,” an initial inspection after the orders were received revealed that 26 of them were too broken for combat, according to the Pentagon report.

By late August, contractors had repaired transmissions, dead batteries, fluid leaks, broken lights, door latches and seatbelts on the Humvees, and reported that all 29 were ready for Ukraine. The work was verified by the Army unit in Kuwait.

But when the Humvees reached a staging base in Poland, officials found that the tires on 25 of them were rotten. It took nearly a month to find enough replacement tires, which “delayed the shipment of other equipment to Ukraine and required significant labor and time,” the Pentagon report found.

The same Army unit in Kuwait was also supposed to send six M777 howitzers to Ukraine just weeks after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion. As it turned out, however, the howitzers “required extensive maintenance” before they could be shipped, because they had gone without regular service checks for 19 months, the Pentagon report found.

At least one was in such bad shape that it “would have killed somebody” trying to use it, inspectors concluded in March 2022.

Three months later, the howitzers had been repaired and shipped to the staging center in Poland. But officials there still concluded that all six “had faults that made them non-mission capable,” the Pentagon audit found. They were repaired in Poland before being sent to Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers moving near the Kherson front in September.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Some weapons systems are either so scarce or so vulnerable to breaking down that Ukraine has welcomed at least some of the faulty Western equipment as a source of parts.

In January, Britain’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, announced the planned transfer of self-propelled AS-90 howitzers to Ukraine, including some in “varying states of readiness.” Twelve required Ukraine “to either refurbish or exploit for spares,” the British Defense Ministry said in a statement in March.

The senior Ukrainian official confirmed that they were needed to supply spare parts for others.

Reporting was contributed by Jason Horowitz from Rome, and Anastasia Kuznietsova, Daria Mitiuk and Michael Schwirtz from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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