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BRUSSELS – As Ukraine’s partners race to send more weapons to Kiev amid a looming Russian offensive, meeting Ukraine’s requests is becoming more complicated.
Ukraine is still waiting for the promised delivery of modern tanks. Combat jets, though much talked about, are plagued by official skepticism.
On top of that, Kiev is using thousands of rounds of ammunition every day — and Western production simply can’t keep up.
As members of the Ukraine-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group gathered in Brussels on Tuesday to coordinate arms support to Ukraine, they came under pressure to provide more advanced capabilities to Ukraine’s forces.
“We received good signals,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address after visiting London, Paris and Brussels.
“This applies both to long-range missiles and tanks, and to the next level of our cooperation – combat aircraft,” he said, but added, “we still have to work on this.”
And while most of Ukraine’s partners have pledged to respond to Zelensky’s stump visit with increased support because the conflict could escalate, Western governments must overcome political and practical hurdles.
“It is clear that we are in a logistics race,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Monday. “Key capabilities such as ammunition, fuel and spare parts must reach Ukraine before Russia can seize the initiative on the battlefield.”
Made up of around 50 countries and popularly known as the Ramstein format – both current and future arms supplies to Ukraine will be on the table when they meet at NATO headquarters.
NATO allies will hold a direct meeting of defense ministers to hear the latest assessment from Ukrainian counterparts and discuss the alliance’s future defense challenges.
Ukrainian officials will use the session, which is usually held at the US base in Ramstein, Germany, to share their latest needs with Western officials – from air defense to ground logistics – while also being a place to check in with supporters in Kiev. Implementation of previous commitments and availability in the near future.
A senior European diplomat said the session aimed to “increase as much military aid as is necessary – not just promises, but actual rapid delivery is of particular importance.”
“Tanks are needed on the battlefield, not on paper,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussion.
Ammo, ammo, ammo
One of the most pressing issues on the table in Brussels this week is how to keep the weapons already sent to fire in Ukraine.
“Of course it’s important to discuss new systems, but the most urgent need is to make sure that all the systems that are already in place, or promised, are delivered and work as they should,” Stoltenberg said.
During a meeting with EU leaders on Thursday, Zelensky and his team provided each leader with a separate list requesting arms and equipment based on the country’s known stocks and capabilities.
But there was a common theme.
“The first thing on the list was, ammunition everywhere,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said.
“If you have equipment and you don’t have ammunition, it’s no use,” the Estonian leader told reporters on Friday.
And while Ukraine needs large amounts of ammunition to continue its war, the West’s own stockpiles are running low.
“It’s a real concern,” said Ben Hodges, former commander of US Army Europe. “None of us, including the United States, are making enough ammunition right now,” he said in a phone interview Sunday.
Munitions will also be at the top of a meeting of NATO defense ministers on Wednesday, who will discuss increasing production of arms, ammunition and equipment along with future defense spending targets for alliance members.
Boosting stockpiles and production, Stoltenberg stressed Monday, “requires more defense spending by NATO allies.”
And while the NATO chief said there had been some progress in working with industry on plans to increase stockpile targets, some current and former officials expressed frustration about the pace of work.
Callas last week floated the idea of joint EU procurement to help deliver and speed up the delivery of arms and ammunition to Ukraine, although it is unclear whether the plan would enjoy sufficient support within the bloc – and how quickly it could have an impact.
Hodges thinks companies need a clear demand signal from the government. “We need art to do more,” he said.
But he noted, “These are not charities … these are commercial businesses, and so you have to place an order with money before they start making it.”
The jet fails to fight (so far)
The fighter jets are a priority seek for Ukrainian officials, although Western governments do not yet appear ready to make firm commitments.
Many countries have finally expressed openness to supplying jets to Ukraine, indicating that the issue is no longer a red line. However, the dilemma remains.
The UK has gone the furthest so far, announcing it will train Ukrainian pilots on fighter jets. But when it comes to actually delivering the aircraft, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace warned that “it’s not a simple case of dragging an aircraft across the border.”
Meanwhile, Polish President Andrzej Duda said sending F-16 aircraft was a “very serious decision” that was “not easy to take”, arguing that his country does not have enough jets.
For some potential donors, the jet debate revolves around both timing and utility.
“The essential question is: What do they want to do with the planes? It’s not clear,” said a French diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “Do they think that with 50 or 100 fighter jets, they can retake Donbass?” Diplomat Dr.
This diplomat said that now there is no point in training Ukrainians on Western jets. “It will take more than six months to train them, so it doesn’t respond to their immediate needs.”
But, the diplomat added, “Maybe some countries should give them MiGs, planes they can actually fly.”
Slovakia is actually moving closer to sending MiG-29 jets to Ukraine.
“We want to do it,” said a Slovak official, who was not at liberty to be identified. “But how we have to work out the details,” the official said, adding that an internal process and negotiations with Ukraine still need to take place.
No major jet announcements are expected at Tuesday’s meeting, although the issue is likely to be discussed
where is the tank?
And while Western governments have already – with great fanfare – struck a deal to supply modern tanks to Ukraine, questions about the actual delivery will also loom at Tuesday’s meeting.
Germany’s leadership in particular stressed that now was the time for countries that supported the idea of sending tanks to their rhetoric.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said last week that “Germany is making a very central contribution to ensure that we deliver aid quickly, as we have done in the past.”
“We are trying to ensure that many others who have come forward in the past now follow this finger pointing with concrete steps,” he said. Germany aims to have the tanks in Ukraine by the end of March, and training has already begun
Besides tanks, another pending request that Ukrainian officials will likely bring up this week is long-range missiles.
Hodges, who has been advocating for the West to give Ukraine the weapons it needs to retake Crimea, said he believes long-range precision weapons are key. “That’s how you defeat mass with precision.”
Any such weapon, he argued, “must be at the top of the list.”
Clea Calcutt contributed reporting from Paris and Hans von der Bouchard from Berlin.