Ukraine Needs South Korean Artillery Shells, Poland’s Prime Minister Says

WASHINGTON — Poland’s prime minister said he believed that only the direct intervention of President Biden would lead to an agreement for South Korea to make its artillery shells available to Ukraine to use in the fight against Russia.

Leaked intelligence documents posted on social media in March and brought to wider public attention in recent days said Poland could have a role in the transfer of artillery shells from South Korea to Ukraine. But the reports indicated that South Korean officials were reluctant to provide the ammunition, worried that doing so could violate their country’s rules against providing lethal aid to nations at war.

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland, who is in Washington this week for meetings with U.S. officials and the International Monetary Fund, said tapping into South Korean artillery stocks was crucial to getting more badly needed ammunition to Ukraine.

Russia’s military, Mr. Morawiecki said in an interview on Tuesday with The New York Times, has far more artillery shells and is firing far more rounds on the battlefield each month than the Ukrainian Army. He said South Korea has a huge supply of artillery shells and could help.

But forging a deal, he added, would require more direct involvement from Mr. Biden to assure South Korea that the United States would offer support in the face of any aggressive response from China or Russia.

“We spoke to South Korea about this, the weapon delivery and delivery of ammunition,” Mr. Morawiecki said. “But I don’t think that this is going to be possible without the intervention of the United States. South Korea is fearful of Russian reaction and Chinese reaction.”

Officials with the South Korean Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Morawiecki said Poland would never transfer the weaponry without negotiating an arrangement with South Korea. Poland has purchased many weapons systems from South Korea, but he said that buying shells from Seoul specifically to send to Ukraine would require U.S. involvement.

The State of the War

The war in Ukraine is at its heart a battle of artillery, with both sides hurling huge numbers of shells at entrenched lines of soldiers in the country’s east and south. Ukraine has run low on Soviet-era shells and has largely shifted to firing artillery guns and rounds donated by the United States and its allies.

The leaked documents, based on U.S. communications intercepts, said South Korean officials were worried that Mr. Biden might pressure them to make a deal to send more artillery shells to Ukraine. In one document, dated early March, the American intelligence reported that a senior official in South Korea’s National Security Office said his country was “not prepared to have a call between the heads of state without having a clear position” on the issue.

Months ago, the United States began tapping into American stockpiles of artillery shells stored in Israel, in an effort to increase the supply of ammunition available to Ukraine. Israel, a key U.S. partner, has been unwilling to supply arms to Kyiv to avoid damaging its relations with Russia.

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The United States has also transferred munitions in a similar stockpile it controls in South Korea to Ukraine. But South Korea’s own vast supplies of 155-millimeter shells could be critical to keeping the Ukrainians in the fight.

In the interview, Mr. Morawiecki said he had participated in the discussions and had spoken to South Korean officials over the past several months.

“I would be very happy if President Biden intervened,” Mr. Morawiecki said. “Because without the intervention of the United States and some kind of shelter, some kind of security guarantee that President Biden could give South Korea, I don’t think this is going to happen.”

American officials declined to comment on Mr. Morawiecki’s remarks.

Mr. Biden has twice visited Poland for meetings about the Ukraine war. And Mr. Morawiecki praised Mr. Biden’s and America’s support for Ukraine.

“Let’s be frank: Without the United States, Ukraine would no longer exist today,” he said.

The appeal from Poland’s prime minister comes as American and European officials have warned Ukraine that it is burning through artillery shells at an unsustainable rate as it tries to hold the eastern city of Bakhmut. That could jeopardize a planned springtime campaign that Ukraine and its partners hope will prove decisive.

Given the high stakes of a Ukrainian counteroffensive, the United States recently announced two more immediate shipments of thousands of artillery rounds from Pentagon stockpiles to help shore up Ukraine’s supplies.

But a senior American defense official said those shipments, announced by the Biden administration on March 20 and April 4, would be the last two major infusions of ammunition to Ukraine before the offensive is expected to begin, and for the foreseeable future.

The U.S. official described the shipments as a “last-ditch effort” because Kyiv’s allies do not have enough ammunition to keep up with Ukraine’s pace and their own stocks are critically low. Apart from the fighting in Bakhmut, Ukraine has been training thousands of troops and trying to build up stores of ammunition for the spring offensive.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III is scheduled to meet with his counterparts from some 50 nations next week in Germany for a monthly meeting to discuss contributing arms and equipment to Ukraine. Additional artillery supplies and ammunition for Ukraine’s depleted air defenses are expected to be at the top of the agenda, a Pentagon official said on Tuesday.

Mr. Morawiecki said that the war took a huge amount of his time and the Polish government’s efforts, but that supporting Ukraine was crucial.

“I want Ukraine to win this war because, God forbid, Ukraine gets conquered, then it’s a completely different world,” he said. “If Russia succeeds, and a big country can invade a smaller country, why would not China repeat the same trick with the support of Russians? So it’s a pivotal moment in the history of the globe.”

Mr. Morawiecki said that while Eastern European countries like Poland understood the gravity of the situation, he believed that Western Europe could do more to help Ukraine.

“I think that many of them could do more, more quickly and more weapon delivery,” he said. “They are rich countries.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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