"We can find 1.5 –2 million shells for Ukraine within a year. I don't understand why there isn't money for this"

Friday, 31 May 2024 — , European Pravda, from Prague
PHOTO: Abaca/East News
A Ukrainian soldier prepares artillery shells at a position in the Lyman direction. 25 May 2024

Tomáš Kopečný is a Czech defence expert and government official, one of those responsible for relations with Ukraine. His official position is the Governmental Envoy for the Reconstruction of Ukraine. However, Kopečný is currently more focused on what is a prerequisite for Ukraine's reconstruction – its victory in the war against Russia. Specifically, supplying weapons to the Armed Forces of Ukraine for this victory.

He worked at the Defence Ministry as the Deputy Minister for Defence Cooperation until the end of 2022. Under his leadership, the Defence Ministry developed the weapon procurement scheme for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which has become known as the "Czech Initiative".

We met in Prague before the start of the NATO ministerial meeting. Kopečný spoke with a small circle of journalists for the first time about how the Czech Initiative came to life and how it had operated secretly since early 2022, when most Western countries were afraid to send weapons to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

We are publishing the most important points from his speech. Additional context and explanations from EP are provided in italics where necessary.


How the Czech Initiative for supplying ammunition came about

The story of the Czech Ammunition Initiative started in January 2024 with tense discussions about the one million shells the EU has promised Ukraine (the EU had to admit that it could not fulfil its commitments on time last year).

At the European Council meeting on 1 February, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala told his counterparts that an initiative to acquire ammunition from non-EU countries had been running in Czechia for two years.

This initiative has been running since the start of the full-scale invasion. Other countries have also been involved, and we have invited more allies to join us. However, until 2024, we were doing this secretly. 

So when first Prime Minister Fiala and then President Pavel revealed at the Munich conference that this operation was running, it was a new thing for us. What we didn't want to do was to reveal too much information.

But it turned out that the publicity was helpful.

After this public announcement, many other countries we had been keeping informed over the last two years now approached us and started expressing their support and commitment to support.

However, there is a limit to publicity in arms procurement. We were not revealing too much information. We were not specifying the sums. We were not specifying the countries of origin of this ammunition. And in most of the instances, we will keep on sticking to this policy.

How many shells can Ukraine receive?

Today, the pace of deliveries depends on a single factor: the availability of financial resources. 

President Petr Pavel mentioned the figure of 800,000 shells, and we can indeed provide this supply. But we could increase this to 1.5 or 2 million. The only thing we need to make this happen is enough funding. We’re talking about contributions from about 20 countries. But only five have paid so far.  

Right now, we have confirmed commitments for 500,000 large-calibre munitions (including not only 120-155 mm shells but also smaller shells from 81mm calibre upwards).  

If we talk about the maximum limit, in the mid-term perspective, approximately 12 months, there are single digit millions of ammunition rounds that we are competing for (meaning fewer than 10 million; the diplomat declined to specify the number).

And we are competing for these munitions with Russia as well.

However, an important question is: what is the real need for Ukraine?

This year, next year, and in 2026, the need is roughly 200,000 pieces of artillery shells per month just to match the enemy, let alone outshooting them. So 500,000 shells would only cover 2.5 months. Fortunately Ukraine isn’t reliant on the Czech Initiative alone.

How the initiative works and who’s funding it

The Czech government started the initiative on 26 February 2022 and has been contributing ever since. 

In fact, Czechia started approaching some of our partners in January 2022. Back then it was too early for other leaders to go for it. So we continued and we are very happy that the Netherlands decided to join us in September 2022. They were happy with it, so they told the Danes, who in turn joined in May-June 2023. Since then, the initiative has essentially operated with these three countries: the Netherlands, Denmark and Czechia.

The United States made a one-time contribution for the acquisition of T-72 battle in autumn 2022.

In total, before the public announcement of this initiative in February 2024, we had delivered more than 1.3 million large-calibre shells to Ukraine. We are still delivering a significant amount of ammunition to Ukraine every month, which the Netherlands and Denmark paid for last year.

We will start delivering what we have contracted as part of the now public Czech Initiative.

The first delivery in June will be between 50,000 and 100,000 shells.

Since the announcement in Munich, the number of potential donors has increased. However, so far, only five countries (or six, including the Czech Republic) have actually allocated funds for procurement – Germany, Portugal and Canada have joined. Another ten NATO member states have clear commitments and have already signed a memorandum, but have not yet allocated funds.

But there are also allies who have not been particularly active. The third category includes all major European countries, except Germany, which is unfortunately the only major EU country that has supported the initiative.

(Note: Tomáš Kopečný declined to name the countries that have been disappointing in their stance, explaining that he does not aim to publicly shame them. However, given his description, it is clear that problematic countries definitely include France, Italy, Spain and most likely the UK (if counted as a European country in this sense), as well as Poland (if it is considered one of the "largest"). At the same time, at least France and Poland have expressed interest in the initiative but have not reached real decisions.)

Restrictions on striking Russia

Whether Ukraine is provided with certain munitions along with restrictions on their use depends on who is funding it. We only provide the procurement system, and the interaction between the donor and the Ukrainian side is up to them.  

But I can tell you that Czechia has never even considered the issue of restricting the use of weapons by Ukrainian defenders and allowing them to use them only where the Russians want them to. There was never even a discussion about it.

Most of the countries that supply materials through our system share this approach, but I don't want to speak for them. Although there is another approach. (Kopechny did not elaborate, but it is known that Germany has until very recently been committed to limiting the area of use of the weapons it provides).

Czechia's leadership

This is not the first time Czechia has been ahead of the game in this conflict. We have often been pioneers: for example, we were the first country to send Ukraine tanks (Soviet T-72s), and the first to send armoured personnel carriers, multiple launch rocket systems, combat helicopters and howitzers.

All of this happened between February and April 2022, when everyone was telling us: "Oh my God, do you know what this could mean for escalation?" They explained to us that we would not be able to safely transfer these things to Ukraine, that the equipment would not get there. But none of the fears were justified; they were not even based on logical assumptions.

Instead, we see – especially now, in the context of the Russian offensive on Kharkiv – how Russia is using these self-imposed restrictions. The Russians are shelling Ukrainian towns and villages from their own country knowing that the Ukrainian Armed Forces cannot respond. Only occasionally, when they feel comfortable enough, do they enter Ukrainian territory for a while and then return to Russia.

It makes no sense to keep restrictions on the use of weapons by Ukrainians.

Similarly, everyone sees the massive deployment of troops to the border of Sumy region. And what are we doing? We are just waiting for them to cross the border.

How shells are procured

If we are talking about the 800,000 shells mentioned by President Pavel (he spoke about half a million 155 mm shells and another 300,000 122 mm shells), it is now worth more than twice as much, rather than the €1.5 billion that was originally discussed.

Prices are rising because this is the market, and it reacts when many buyers appear at the same time. Therefore, prices also depend on our coordination: if Ukraine's allies do not coordinate their actions well, they compete with each other. We receive price offers that are even four times higher than this amount. 

But in general, the rise in the price of shells has slowed down. The other thing is that global prices have already quadrupled compared to the pre-war period.

There are two ways we work. Either we receive funds from the Czech state budget and make the purchase ourselves, or we help donors find the right business partner with whom they sign a contract. Berlin, for example, chose the second option. Another Czech initiative is both to purchase existing shells in stock and to order the production of new ones at facilities in other countries.

I would like to emphasise that Germany has allocated much more than any other country for this procurement – over €600 million.

I have already said that we can provide for the purchase of both 1.5 million and 2 million shells.

To fully meet the basic needs of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (i.e. to supply 200,000 shells per month), we need about 7-10 billion euros a year.

And I don't understand why this money cannot be found. I don't understand why it is impossible to provide loans for prepayments, refinancing, etc. From the first day of the war, I have been asking myself why there is a problem, and I have no answer.

This is especially disappointing when you compare the amounts needed with the costs and loans that were allocated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of billions of euros? Easy!

Or the $200 billion we spent on Afghanistan almost every year. With this kind of funding, we could completely change the battlefield situation in Ukraine. Completely! But it is as it is.

Competition with the Russians

How do we find these shells?

It may sound like a comic book: as if President Pavel is playing Pokemon Go, flying around the world and finding artillery shells. But the reality is different. Finding a supplier takes much more time than finding a Pokemon. And secondly, you can't just find them somewhere by chance. These are always complex non-public agreements.

And very often we have to compete with the Russians.

The global arms market is a complex, regulated market, but it is still a market. The main thing is to have money and be faster than the Russians.

It works like this: you contact a partner who has ammunition or weapons that you want to send to Ukraine. And if you have enough money right now to make an advance payment faster than the Russian side does, the weapons go to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. If it's slower, sometimes you come back and hear the answer: "That's it, there are no more". And you realise that the shells have gone to the Russian side.

Unfortunately, there are countries that are ready to sell weapons to both Ukraine and Russia.

So this is a constant struggle. And I can say that, in general, we are not losing in this struggle.

Is there a role for Russia in the fact that only five countries have provided funding so far? The answer is no, this is not Russian sabotage or anything like that. The main reason is the speed of the processes in different countries. Parliamentary approvals and budget decisions take longer than we expected. But we expect this to happen.

And, of course, sometimes the lack of political will is an obstacle.

I would like to emphasise that we, the Czechs, do not underestimate the possibility of Russian sabotage. We have enough experience with the Russians. But in this initiative, the Russians are not the biggest obstacle. The main problem is that we lack money.

The role of Russia

Is there a role for Russia in the fact that only five countries have provided funding so far? It's not Russian sabotage or anything like this. The main reason is the speed of the processes of different countries and the political will. It's about parliamentary approvals, budgetary committees. It takes longer than we expected. But we expected this to be happening.

I emphasise that we, the Czechs, are definitely not underestimating the possibility of Russian sabotage in this country. What we are just seeing from the systemic process of the Czech ammunition initiative, this is not the biggest obstacle. The main problem is that we lack money.

Sergiy Sydorenko, 

European Pravda, Editor, from Prague

Translated by Daria Meshcheriakova

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