Western capitals will lay out additional pledges of ammunition and air defence equipment for Ukraine at a meeting on Tuesday to bolster Kyiv’s forces, officials told the FT, in a gathering of allies that coincides with a planned large-scale offensive by Moscow.
The fresh promises of military support come as Kyiv and Nato warn of ammunition shortages confronting Ukraine’s military in the face of Russia’s invasion, and as western capitals grow concerned at the effect of strained defence supply chains and dwindling domestic stockpiles.
These immediate needs trumped longer-term requests for materiel such as fighter jets or quicker shipments of western battle tanks, officials said, given Russia’s new offensive, which Nato said on Monday had already begun.
“What Ukraine tells us that they really need is ammunition and additional air defence capabilities,” a western official said.
A US official said fighter jets were less important in the near term as Ukraine looked to maintain an edge.
“What we really have to concentrate on now is Ukraine’s ability to defend the air and they’ll do that through air defence artillery, equipped with the proper ammunition. Fighter jets are not and will not be as capable against the Russian air force as an integrated air defence system,” said a US official.
The official added: “This war has proven to be an artillery duel using mass amounts of artillery ammunition on both sides. The international community will seek to continue to supply Ukraine with the artillery it needs to defend itself.”
Air defence support is seen to be necessary because of concerns over the relatively undiminished capability of the Russian air force. Western officials are worried it could be deployed more during Moscow’s spring offensive, which comes after months of Russian retreats in southern and eastern Ukraine.
Julianne Smith, US ambassador to Nato, said the purpose of Tuesday’s meeting was to “understand the current requirements on the part of the Ukrainians and then match those requirements with new and additional pledges of assistance”.
The gathering could also include talks about a greater number of more direct contracts between Kyiv and western defence companies, brokered and financed by allied countries, two officials said. That would streamline the flow of supplies from production line to deployment, while also acknowledging that western militaries have little more to give from their reserves.
“The war in Ukraine is consuming an enormous amount of munitions, and depleting allied stockpiles,” Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday. “The current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production.”
Defence officials from some 50 countries allied with Ukraine will meet at Nato’s headquarters in Brussels for a regular meeting of the group, which first assembled at Ramstein US air base in Germany soon after the war began just over a year ago.
Ukraine and Russia are engaged in fierce fighting around the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, which US officials believe could fall to Moscow this week.
The town is of little strategic importance but its loss would be a symbolic blow to Kyiv after months of fighting. Russia has also stepped up attacks elsewhere in the Donbas alongside renewed air and missile attacks on other areas of Ukraine as part of apparent shaping operations, designed to begin creating the conditions for a future battle. It has some 300,000 troops in Ukraine as it gears up for a new offensive.
Additional ammunition will be crucial as Ukraine seeks to hold off Russia while it awaits more sophisticated weaponry from the US and other allies. Kyiv hopes these supplies will aid in its own spring counteroffensive.
Last month the US and Germany agreed to provide main battle tanks. The American heavy armour will take months to arrive but German and British tanks could arrive in the spring. The US, UK and Germany also pledged infantry fighting vehicles, which will help Ukraine’s ability to manoeuvre and conduct combined arms operations.
While Moscow has fallen short of its original war aims, western officials see no signs that it is prepared to change course or rethink its operations. Increasingly Russia is using the sheer size of its forces as an advantage but has suffered steep casualties. American officials estimate about 200,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pressing western allies to send fighter jets, though so far the US and other powers have not obliged. President Joe Biden has said the US will not send F-16s, but Washington officials concede they are likely to provide Ukraine with more sophisticated air power as the war drags on — or at least give a green light to the transfer of F-16s from other powers.
The issue of supplying fighter jets will be discussed on Tuesday, two people briefed on the preparations said, while confirming that acquiring the aircraft was a longer-term objective for Kyiv and far less important than pressing needs such as ammunition.