While the U.S. Congress holds up military aid for Ukraine, a bonanza of small arms intended for Iranian-backed Houthi militias will soon be in Ukrainian hands. A shipment of 5,000 Iranian AK-47s, 500,000 rounds of ammo, sniper rifles, and machine guns — enough weapons and ammo to equip a Ukrainian infantry brigade — is on its way to the Ukrainian military, U.S. Central Command said this week, all seized by the U.S. from Iranian smugglers in the Red Sea.

The weapons were seized, according to releases from CENTCOM and the Department of Justice, between May 2021 and February 2023 in operations to interdict Iranian arms being smuggled to Houthi rebels in Yemen. Centcom got the legal go-ahead to take legal custody of the arms last December. The arms were seized by U.S. and partner naval forces from “four separate transiting stateless vessels,” Centcom said. The “munitions were being transferred from the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] to the Houthis in Yemen.”

The U.S. has been stopping and searching — and sometimes sinking — ships in the Red Sea, often so-called “stateless” vessels commonly linked with smuggling, to slow the supplies arriving in Yemen for Iranian-backed Houthi militias. The combat in the region has escalated in recent months, with Houthi rebels firing on merchant ships, effectively closing the shipping artery through the waterway. U.S. ships and aircraft have downed Houthi drones aimed at commercial shipping and U.S. ships, including 28 in one wave in March.

The U.S. has also bombed the Yeman capital of Sana’a, striking 36 targets at 13 locations in February. In all, the Pentagon says it has hit 230 Houthi targets in 2024.

Ukraine falling behind 10-to-1

While the shipment of AK-47s will help small arms units, it will do little to aid Ukraine’s disadvantage against larger Russian arms, particularly artillery. After a March announcement of a $300 million aid package, the U.S. has sent nothing to Ukraine as Republicans in the House of Representatives have refused to vote on bills that would re-open shipments to the country.

In testimony to Congress Wednesday, Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, head of U.S. European Command, said Ukrainian forces are rapidly falling behind Russians in ammunition.

“They are now being outshot by the Russian side five to one. So the Russians fire five times as many artillery shells at the Ukrainians than the Ukrainians are able to fire back. That will immediately go to 10 to one in a matter of weeks,” Cavoli said. “We’re not talking about months. We’re not talking hypothetically.”

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