Kyiv is converting US missiles for new uses and prioritising joint ventures with western companies. Twenty months since Russia‟s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian officials know how essential it is to turbocharge their own industry and innovate at speed

Alec Russell and Christopher Miller

October 24, 2023

Financial Times


“Infantry wins battles, logistics wins wars,” General John Pershing, the commander of US forces in the first world war, famously said. More than a century later his aphorism is underpinning strategy in another grinding trench war, as Ukraine tries to build its own munitions industry to lessen its reliance on western allies in its fight against Russian aggression. “We have a huge deficit of ammunition not just in Ukraine but all over the world,” Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told the Financial Times. “We understand we should produce this here in Ukraine because all around the world it’s finished, it’s depleted. All the warehouses are empty.”

The government was drawing on the lessons of its dramatic increase in domestic drone manufacturing, he said, which is up from “a few dozen last year” to “dozens of thousands” this year. Kyiv was also shifting its budget to concentrate on the “military defence complex”, including air defence and artillery.

But building up a procurement industry for shells, artillery and air defence is a far more complex and ambitious undertaking than for drones, at a time of worldwide shortages of key components and raw materials. One official said they could not quickly transform shell production in the way they did for drones, not least because of the global “shortage of gunpowder”.

Shmyhal was speaking before US president Joe Biden’s call for Congress to approve a multibillion-dollar security package for Ukraine and Israel. That message was a timely morale boost to Kyiv given the sluggish nature of the counteroffensive, prospects of a protracted war and concerns over how America’s febrile politics could undermine its long-term provision of arms and funds. But 20 months since Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainian officials know how essential it is to turbocharge their own industry and innovate at speed.

A recent success was to convert redundant US air-to-air AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles into surface-to air missiles — an area of critical need given Russia continues to launch attacks on towns far from the front line. “Those [AIM-9] missiles were out of operation,” said a senior Ukrainian official in reference to a batch of that type supplied to Ukraine. “We fixed them. We found a way of launching them from the ground. It‟s a kind of self-made air defence.”

Those repurposed projectiles would help “get us through the winter” when Russia is expected to bombard Ukraine’s energy infrastructure to plunge the country into darkness, the official said, adding that this was not a long-term solution, however. This was one of a number of such initiatives where they were converting old material deemed redundant by the US military into

essential weaponry, the official said. “We have an agreed solution where we take something obsolete and make it something different.”

A priority now is signing joint ventures with European and American defence companies. This summer, Ukraine’s state-owned conglomerate Ukroboronprom inked an agreement with German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall to repair damaged Leopard tanks and other armour alongside producing new vehicles.

That was one of “about 20” agreements signed with different companies and partners for joint co-operation and production, Shmyhal said, without giving any details. Some western governments are wary of signing off on such deals, fearing that their citizens might be killed in a Russian strike on a facility.

Some leading Ukrainian business people say the government should have pivoted more quickly to prioritising domestic arms procurement. Ministers concede that the slow progress of the counteroffensive and the fractious American political climate have made this shift essential.

Asked about the congressional turmoil in Washington where radical Republicans earlier this month rejected funding for Ukraine, Shmyhal conceded “this political shaking inside the USA is a big concern”.

The premier would not be drawn into commenting on the consequences if Donald Trump was reelected US president next year and ended American support for Ukraine. “These are political challenges for us. Right now many changes are happening among our partners,” he said, also alluding to EU elections in June.

But Shmyhal insisted Kyiv remained confident in the Biden administration’s long-term pledges of support and in the continuing backing of the American people. Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for innovation and digital transformation, said the drone revolution he oversaw was enabled by opening up the traditionally state-run industry. That same shift to the free market was essential if Ukraine was to develop a munitions industry, he added. “We’ve revolutionised the bureaucracy [for drones],” he said, citing tax cuts for drone companies and the removal of duties on components.

The state had to “turn into a venture investor”, he said, removing its monopoly on weapons production and creating “the best conditions in the world for entrepreneurs”. Fedorov’s latest focus is on first-person view (FPV) drones, which allow the controller to see what the drone camera is seeing. Ukraine has increased the production of FPV drones a thousand-fold in the past year, he said, via a collaboration with the private sector. “Now a large number of factories are opening” to manufacture ammunition for FPV drones, he added.

However, he would not be drawn into commenting on the fallout from China’s recent export ban on drones and drone parts. “There are supply interruptions for some companies,” he said. “I think it will take time to assess the results of these regulations.” The person in charge of the effort to supercharge Ukraine’s logistics and transform the economy to spur domestic arms production is Oleksandr Kamyshin, minister for strategic industries and former head of the country’s railways.

He said it was pointless to aim for full independence, given that “no one [country] can be capable of bearing that level of consumption”. But he does envisage Ukraine producing and receiving munition to the extent it could become the equivalent of the “arsenal of the whole free world”. As for the unstated but prevalent concern in Kyiv that US weapons supplies will slow down, Kamyshin said America’s arms industry and military would always want to work closely with Ukraine. “They have seen how creative and how good we are in making things work faster and well. So if you take something that is broken and give it to Ukrainians they will not just make it work, they will make it work better. People will always like to do business with this kind of engineer.”


Alec Russell is the FT’s Foreign Editor, responsible for overseeing our network of foreign correspondents and our coverage of great global themes. He was the editor of FT Weekend from 2016-2023. During his tenure, it won a series of awards including European weekend newspaper of the year and UK weekend newspaper of the year. He also launched the FTWeekend festival in London and then in Washington.  He was previously the FT’s news editor and also the opinion editor. A long-time former foreign correspondent, he has reported from Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Washington, winning a number of awards. He has written three books. The latest is After Mandela: the battle for the soul of South Africa.

Christopher Miller writes about Ukraine for the FT. He has reported from Ukraine since 2010, and was previously a world and national security reporter for POLITICO and a correspondent for BuzzFeed News. Author of “The War Came To Us: Life And Death In Ukraine”, Christopher joined the FT in October 2022.