Ukraine boosts domestic arms production at secret factories

Amid fears that the supply of arms provided by Ukraine’s allies could run out, Kyiv is eager to bolster the country’s defense industry

Guerra Rusia Ucrania
Metinvest employees prepare an anti-mine roller at a secret plant this December in central Ukraine.Cristian Segura
Cristian Segura

In a city in central Ukraine, a van arrives to pick me up in a parking lot. The vehicle’s windows have been blacked out with dark fabric, so that passengers can’t see where it’s going. You also have to turn off your cell phone. The van then follows a seemingly circuitous route involving several twists and turns, before reaching its destination: a factory belonging to Metinvest, Ukraine’s largest business group. There, on one of the factory’s floors, mine rollers for tanks are being built — a tool that is key to allowing Ukraine’s forces to open up paths between the lines of Russian defenses. For the Ukrainian army, this is a crucial piece of technology; one of many examples of the work being done by the country’s private sector to bolster the domestic defense industry and move away from dependence on international aid.

Metinvest’s majority shareholder is Rinat Akhmetov. Ukraine’s richest individual, Akhmetov is best known across Europe as the president of Shakhtar Donetsk, a soccer club that is a regular participant in the UEFA Champions League. He’s from Donetsk, the most important city in Donbas, a region illegally annexed by Russia. Metinvest is a mining and metals giant that has been significantly affected by the war. It has lost the Azovstal iron and steel works, the largest in the country, located in the Russian-occupied Mariupol. In addition, Metinvest’s coke plant, situated in the besieged city of Avdiivka, is no longer operational. The site was Europe’s largest producer of coke, a coal-based fuel that’s essential to metallurgical furnaces.

Along with his industrial conglomerate and his soccer club, Akhmetov left Donetsk when pro-Russian separatists took control of the city in 2014. Unlike other Donbas oligarchs who laid the foundations of their fortunes in the 1990s, when assets belonging to the newly-defunct Soviet Union were privatized, he remained faithful to Ukraine. In the wake of Russia’s large-scale invasion in February 2022, Akhmetov’s influence has come into question as a result of new laws signed by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, amid European Union demands that the power wielded by the country’s oligarchs be reduced. However, Akhmetov’s determination to defend Ukraine has remained intact and, for the first time, Metinvest has become involved in the defense industry. The group has done so at a time when Zelenskiy has branded the growth of Ukrainian military production a matter of life and death.

“If we don’t help, nobody will,” says Igor, a spokesperson for Metinvest’s mine-roller project who prefers not to give his surname. Metinvest’s team produces an average of five or six mine rollers a month; that’s as much as it’s able to, given the number of workers at its disposal and, above all, the shortage of production facilities that are safe against repeated Russian strikes on industrial infrastructure. “Many Metinvest employees are in the army and we’re low on factory space,” Igor explains. The loss of the Avdiivka coke factory represents a serious handicap, he says, as does the standstill at several coal mines in Donbas. Ukraine is one of the world’s most coal-rich countries, but the conflict with Russia has reduced the availability of this natural resource, causing prices to rocket. A ton of coal cost $300 before the war, Igor says; now, he explains, it costs $550.

Metinvest workers building an anti-mine roller.Cristian Segura

Metinvest’s mine rollers went into service last summer, amid the counteroffensive in Zaporizhzhia. In this area of the frontline, and in Donetsk province, Russian defenses are protected by the densest minefields that military analysts can recall witnessing in any war. Speaking to EL PAÍS in September, members of the Tor special-forces group estimated that there may be as many as five anti-personnel or anti-tank mines per square meter.

Andriy, who also opted not to give his surname, is a colonel in command of a National Guard brigade that’s using Metinvest’s mine rollers as it fights in eastern Ukraine. They’ve been adapted from a Soviet design, and updated so that they can explode up to eight mines. That’s three more than the Soviet rollers could destroy before having to be replaced. Andriy explains that this model is the first in Ukraine that can be fitted onto any type of armored vehicle.

Secret underground base

My meeting with Andriy takes place in a secret underground base. For security reasons, this newspaper is asked not to divulge which province the National Guard brigade is in. I’m also not allowed to see how the rollers work. The more the war progresses, the greater the secrecy imposed by Ukraine’s armed forces. When it comes to national weapons production, the jealousy with which information is guarded is even more pronounced. Andriy confirms that Metinvest also provides his brigade with bullet-proof vests, helmets and portable bunkers. But the domestically-produced items they use the most are drones, both for reconnaissance and for carrying out strikes.

“I don’t know how long the war will last,” Andriy says, “but we have a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia. We’ll always be at risk, and we need our own arms production.” The signals coming from Ukraine’s NATO allies suggest that aid is becoming harder to count on. In both chambers of the United States Congress, the Republican Party is refusing to support the $61 billion package that the White House wants to allocate to Ukraine in 2024. And in the EU, €50 billion in aid is being blocked by the Hungarian government, which is close to Moscow. In the summer and autumn, military shipments from Ukraine’s western partners were smaller than at any other time in the war: they were down 90% on 2022, according to the latest report released by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

Against this backdrop, Zelenskiy is desperate to boost Ukraine’s domestic defense industry and, in particular, persuade major western defense companies to establish Ukrainian production sites. In September, the president invited 250 representatives of military companies to a conference in Kyiv to announce a plan to make Ukraine the largest arms producer in the west. Nearly 40 of these companies agreed to look into investing in production locations in the country. The most important development in this regard came earlier in December, when the German firm Rheinmetall revealed that it would begin producing armored vehicles on Ukrainian soil in 2024, in collaboration with a local partner. Previously, the British company BAE had also said it would be setting up a site in Ukraine.

Ammunition for NATO howitzers

Ukraine now manufactures 155 mm-caliber shells, the most basic ammunition for NATO howitzers, and has also developed a new long-range missile, which has evolved out of the Neptune maritime projectiles. However, the country’s Ministry of Defense says the rate of production is low. One major feat achieved by Ukraine’s defense industry is the monthly production of six Bohdana howitzers in Kharkiv. In 2021, Ukraine had a sole prototype of this domestically-developed model.

An area where Ukraine has shown itself to be more self-sufficient is in the development and production of drones and unmanned underwater vehicles. Nevertheless, European manufacturers such as Quantuum have also signed up to produce such craft in Ukraine, taking advantage of the tax breaks they’ll receive and, above all, the country’s experience in the use of drones in combat situations.

A major problem is that any industrial infrastructure is liable to come into Russia’s crosshairs — particularly if it’s producing strategic defense materials. Igor, Metinvest’s spokesperson, is not aware of any efforts to build underground factories. In his experience, the best form of protection is good air-defense technology. However, the closer you are to Russian positions, the lower the reaction time such systems are given. Even if you’re far away from the enemy, the danger is still there: in 2022, EL PAÍS learned that two Russian cruise missiles had hit a Lviv factory for repairing armored vehicles, despite it being hundreds of kilometers from the frontline.

On December 4, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a U.S. politics and defense think tank, published a pessimistic report on the potential of Ukraine’s military industry. The author of the article is Katerina Bondar, a former adviser to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Finance. She draws gloomy conclusions on all fronts, beginning with the country’s ability to protect its production facilities. “There is no silver bullet for mitigating these risks,” Bondar says. “Relocating production underground, for example, would raise investment costs significantly and worsen working conditions. Air-defense systems are in short supply and cannot ensure total protection against evolving attacks, technologies, and methods.”

In Bondar’s view, the efforts undertaken by companies such as Metinvest and thousands of small private initiatives will take time to provide solutions. “Major investment in new physical infrastructure remains unlikely amid the persistent threat of Russian air and missile attacks,” she writes. “Corruption, inadequate professional management, inefficient corporate structures, and technological gaps are just a few of the serious challenges that reformers in Kyiv will have to address before Ukraine can begin producing weapons systems, munitions, and other technologies at the scale needed to address its enormous military needs.”

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