Ukraine’s Western backers will meet for a second day on Wednesday looking to speed up deliveries of ammunition and arms to Kyiv, which is also demanding fighter jets.
After securing commitments for tanks, air defences and precision missiles, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has doubled down on his plea for Western aircraft.
But allies meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels remained focused on ensuring his forces have the ammunition, armoured vehicles and air defences they need on the ground to push back renewed Russian offensives.
“We will provide the Ukrainians with the means to hold out and advance during the spring counter-offensive,” said US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. He mentioned artillery, anti-aircraft defences and armour, but not combat aircraft.
German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said “the issue of air defence and the issue of ammunition resupply are much more important at the moment than the discussion about combat aircraft”.
His Ukrainian counterpart Oleksiy Reznikov agreed that the priorities were to protect his country’s skies, bolster promised tank supplies and ensure ammunition stocks.
“Tomorrow’s program is just as busy,” Reznikov said on Facebook on Tuesday evening. “We will devote more time to tanks.”
Ukraine’s Western supporters — spearheaded by the United States — have already supplied billions of dollars in arms to help Kyiv hold Moscow back.
Now, just under a year into the war, NATO says Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be starting a broader new offensive in east Ukraine.
“We see Russia introducing a number of new troops to the battlefield. Many of those troops are ill-trained and ill-equipped, and so their casualty rate has been really high,” Austin said.
He said Ukraine was looking to turn the tide on the battlefield to gain momentum, and that he expected Kyiv’s forces to launch their own counter-offensive in the spring.
Bakhmut ‘meat grinder’
On the ground in eastern Ukraine, an AFP team heard heavy outgoing artillery fire towards Russian lines around the city of Bakhmut, the main target for Moscow’s attacks.
Ukrainian officials have recently restricted access to the area for aid workers, sparking speculation Kyiv’s forces could be getting ready to withdraw after a gruelling months-long battle.
But the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group said the fight for the symbolic prize was far from over as Ukraine continued to defend house to house, despite claimed Russian gains in nearby villages.
“Bakhmut will not be taken tomorrow, because there is heavy resistance and grinding, the meat grinder is working,” Yevgeny Prigozhin said.
President Zelensky said the situation on the front line, especially in eastern Ukraine, “remains extremely difficult”.
“It is literally a battle for every metre of Ukrainian land,” he said in his evening address.
The fighting is consuming vast quantities of ammunition, straining stockpiles and industries on both sides of the confrontation.
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has warned that Kyiv’s current rate of expenditure was “many times higher” than the output in NATO countries.
Allies continue to raid their shelves for the rounds — especially 155-millimetre shells — that Ukraine is firing by the thousand each day.
NATO is scrambling to get its factories to pump out more, and allies are eyeing plans for joint weapons purchases, higher defence spending and longer-term contracts.
Pistorius said Berlin had signed a deal with manufacturer Rheinmetall to restart production of ammunition for Gepard air defence guns sent to Ukraine.
France and Australia also announced they would produce 155mm artillery together, while the Pentagon announced a $552 million contract with two arms companies to produce 155mm shells for Kyiv. The first US deliveries are expected in March.
Norway’s government became the latest to join a group of nations promising Leopard 2 tanks, offering eight vehicles.
No talk of jets yet
Zelensky issued a powerful call during a trip to London, Paris and Brussels last week for NATO members to send fighter planes and longer-range missiles.
The Ukrainian leader won a commitment from Britain to train pilots but did not get any firm promises that his forces would get Western planes.
But a senior US official said that sending jets was “not something we’re talking about around that table, right now, today”.
Slovakia has said it is willing to discuss sending Soviet MIG-29 planes to help replace losses to Ukraine’s current stocks.
Dutch Defence Minister Kajsa Ollongren said Kyiv had requested US-made F-16 jets from the Netherlands.