Western capitals will lay out additional pledges of ammunition and air defence equipment for Ukraine at a Nato meeting on Tuesday, as Kyiv gears itself up for a highly-anticipated offensive by Moscow.
The fresh promises of military support come after Ukrainian and Nato officials warned of ammunition shortages 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.
Germany’s defence minister, Boris Pistorius, said on Tuesday that the arms producer Rheinmetall would restart production of ammunition for Gepard anti-aircraft guns as part of the new push to support Kyiv.
The Gepard, which the German military decommissioned in 2010, has proved to be an effective weapon for the Ukrainian military to shoot down drones and low-flying missiles. But ammunition has been running low, and a recent effort by Berlin to persuade Switzerland and Brazil to replenish it from their own stocks ended in failure.
“We will quickly start our own production of Gepard ammunition at Rheinmetall,” Pistorius said ahead of the Nato meeting. “I am very happy we have been able to guarantee the delivery of this important part of air defence.”
While Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week had rekindled a debate among allies about whether or not to send fighter jets, a US official said these were less important than ammunition 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.”
While no decisions are expected on Tuesday, the issue of supplying fighter jets will be discussed, two people briefed on the preparations said. 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.
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.
At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Austin said the group would focus on Kyiv’s most immediate needs at a key moment in the fighting.
“Ukraine has urgent requirements to help it meet this crucial moment in the course of the war,” he said. “The Kremlin is still betting that it can wait us out.”
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 are meeting at Nato’s headquarters in Brussels for a regular gathering on arms supplies, which first assembled at Ramstein US air base in Germany soon after the war began nearly 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 and renewed its 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. Moscow 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.
The US, Germany, Poland and the UK last month 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, France, Germany and the UK 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.
Additional reporting by Laura Pitel in Berlin