Russian Soldiers Are Attacking Ukrainians With Shovels, UK Intelligence Says

Russia is running out of ammunition, and some of its troops are relying on an iconic 19th century weapon of war.
Image via Telegram.

Russian soldiers are attacking fortified positions in Ukraine armed with shovels, according to a new report from the British Ministry of Defense

Multiple analysts, and Russian officials, have said that Russia is running low on ammunition which has made it difficult to fight the war in Ukraine, now dragging into its second year. According to the U.K., this ammunition shortage is a direct contributor to the new shovel focused fighting.


“In late February 2023, Russian mobilized reservists described being ordered to assault a Ukrainian concrete strong point armed only with ‘firearms and shovels,’” the U.K. MoD said in a tweet. The ‘shovels’ are likely entrenching tools being employed for hand-to-hand combat.”

The Russian “entrenching tool” is an MPL-50, a standard issue shovel that’s just 50 centimeters long. The MPL-50 is a famous combat shovel that was designed by a Danish man in 1869, adopted by the Russian army shortly after, and used ever since. Its primary use is to quickly dig trenches in a combat situation, but its short stature and sharp blade also made it a useful weapon.

“The lethality of the standard-issue MPL-50 entrenching tool is particularly mythologised in Russia,” the U.K. MoD said. Indeed, the MPL-50 has become an iconic weapon of the Spetsnaz, Russia’s special operations forces. In his 1987 book about the origins of Spetsnaz, former Soviet intelligence agent Viktor Suvorov begins by explaining how the soldiers made the shovel into a deadly weapon. The season 8 finale of the History channel blacksmithing competition show Forged in Fire tasked the smiths with crafting the perfect MPL-50. Videos of soldiers and amateurs hurling the shovels and hacking away at training dummies are popular online.

The MPL-50, in the right hands, is lethal. Some of the soldiers charging Ukrainian positions with the entrenching tool aren’t doing as well as the elite Spetsnaz. “One of the reservists described being ‘neither physically nor psychologically’ prepared for this action,” the U.K. MoD said.

The reliance on shovels and hand-to-hand combat reinforces reports from multiple sources that Russia is running low on ammunition. In December, the Pentagon claimed that Moscow was running low on usable rounds and had been dipping into aging stockpiles. A partial mobilization of 300,000 men last year forced some troops into the field without proper equipment, particularly troops from the Wagner mercenary group, some of whom are convicts pulled from prison populations. 

The shovel story comes at a time of intense, often close fighting around the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The city has become a symbol of resistance for Kyiv and President Zelenskyy has vowed not to retreat. Much of the fighting on the Russian sides of the offensive has been led by the Wagner group. 

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin published a video on Telegram on Sunday that blamed a lack of ammunition for the slow siege of Bakhmut. “For now, we are trying to figure out the reason: is it just ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal,” Prigozhin said. He said that Moscow’s leadership was withholding critical supplies from his troops. “If Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse. The situation will not be sweet for all military formations protecting Russian interests.”