West struggles to deliver on Zelenskyy’s defense wish list

West struggles to deliver on Zelenskyy’s defense wish list
Опубликовано: Monday, 13 February 2023 19:53

Kyiv is waiting for more advanced capabilities as concerns grow about ammunition.

BRUSSELS — With Ukraine’s partners racing to send more weapons to Kyiv amid an emerging Russian offensive, fulfilling Ukrainian requests is becoming trickier.

Ukraine is still waiting for promised deliveries of modern tanks. Combat jets, though much discussed, are mired in the throes of government hesitation.

On top of that, Kyiv is using thousands of rounds of ammunition per day — and Western production simply can’t keep up.

As members of the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group gather in Brussels on Tuesday to coordinate arms assistance to Ukraine, they face pressure to expedite delivery and provide even more advanced capabilities to Ukrainian forces.

“We have received good signals,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address following visits to 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, however adding, “We still need to work on this.”

And while most of Ukraine’s partners are committed to responding to Zelenskyy’s stump tour with expanded support as the conflict threatens to escalate, Western governments will have to overcome political and practical hurdles.

“It is clear that we are in a race of logistics,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Monday. “Key capabilities like ammunition, fuel, and spare parts must reach Ukraine before Russia can seize the initiative on the battlefield.”

Existing and future supply of weapons to Ukraine will both be on the table when the defense group — made up of about 50 countries and popularly known at the Ramstein format — meets at NATO headquarters.

NATO allies will also hold a meeting of defense ministers directly afterward to hear the latest assessment from Ukrainian counterparts and discuss the alliance’s future defense challenges.

Ukrainian officials will use the session, which would typically be held at the U.S. base in Ramstein, Germany, to share their latest needs with Western officials — from air defense to ground logistics — while it will also be a venue for Kyiv’s supporters to check in on implementation of earlier pledges and availabilities in the near future.

The aim of the session, said a senior European diplomat, is “to step up military support as much as needed — not only commitments, but actual speedy deliverables is of particular significance.”

“Tanks are needed not on paper but in the battlefield,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of discussions.

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 Ukraine firing.

“Of course it is important to discuss new systems, but the most urgent need is to ensure that all the systems which are already there, or have been pledged, are delivered and work as they should,” Stoltenberg said.

During meetings with EU heads on Thursday, Zelenskyy and his team provided each leader with an individualized list requesting weapons and equipment based on the country’s known stocks and capabilities.

But there was one common theme.

“The first thing on the list was, everywhere, the ammunition,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said.

“If you have the equipment and you don’t have the ammunition, then it’s no use,” the Estonian leader told reporters on Friday.

And while Ukraine is in dire need of vast amounts of ammo to keep fighting, Western countries’ own stocks are running low.

“It’s a very real concern,” said Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe. “None of us, including the United States, is producing enough ammunition right now,” he said in a phone interview on Sunday.

Munitions will also be top of mind at the session of NATO defense ministers on Wednesday, who will discuss boosting production of weapons, ammunition and equipment, along with future defense spending targets for alliance members.

Boosting stockpiles and production, Stoltenberg emphasized on Monday, “requires more defense expenditure by NATO allies.”

Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas | Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty images

And while the NATO chief said some progress has been made on work with industry on plans to boost stockpile targets, some current and former officials have expressed frustration about the pace of work.

Kallas last week raised the idea of joint EU purchases to help spur production and hasten deliveries of weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, although it’s not clear whether this plan would enjoy sufficient support within the bloc — and how fast it could have an impact.

Hodges thinks companies need a clearer demand signal from governments. “We need industry to do more,” he said.

But he noted, “These are not charities … they are commercial businesses, and so you have to have an order with money before they start making it.”

Jets fight fails to take off (for now)

Fighter jets are a priority ask for Ukrainian officials, although Western governments seem not yet ready to make concrete commitments.

Numerous countries have expressed openness to eventually providing Ukraine with jets, indicating that the matter is no longer a red line. Regardless, hesitation remains.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg | Valeria Mongelli/AFP via Getty Images

The U.K. has gone the furthest so far, announcing that it will train Ukrainian pilots on fighter jets. But when it comes to actually providing aircraft, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace cautioned that “this is not a simple case of towing an aircraft to the border.”

Polish President Andrzej Duda, meanwhile, said sending F-16 aircraft would be a “very serious decision” which is “not easy to take,” arguing that his country does not have enough jets itself.

For some potential donors, the jets debate revolves around both timing and utility.

“The essential question is: What do they want to do with planes? It’s not clear,” said one French diplomat, who was unauthorized to speak publicly. “Do they think that with 50 or 100 fighter jets, they can retake the Donbas?” the diplomat said.

The diplomat said there is no point in training Ukrainians on Western jets now. “It’ll take over six months to train them, so it doesn’t respond to their immediate imperatives.”

But, the diplomat added, “maybe some countries should give them MiGs, planes that they can actually fly.”

Slovakia is in fact moving closer to sending MiG-29 jets to Ukraine.

“We want to do it,” said a Slovak official who was not at liberty to disclose their identity. “But we must work out the details on how,” the official said, adding that a domestic process and talks with Ukraine still need to take place.

No big jet announcements are expected at the Tuesday meeting, though the issue is likely to be discussed.

Where are the tanks?

And while Western governments have already — with great fanfare — struck a deal to provide Ukraine with modern tanks, questions over actual deliveries will also likely come up at Tuesday’s meeting.

Germany’s leadership in particular has stressed it’s time for countries that supported the idea of sending tanks to live up to their rhetoric.

“Germany is making a very central contribution to ensuring that we provide rapid support, as we have done in the past,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said last week.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is shown an anti-aircraft gun tank Gepard | Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

“We are striving to ensure that many others who have come forward in the past now follow up on this finger-pointing with practical action,” he went on. Germany’s goal is for Ukraine to receive tanks by the end of March, and training has already begun.

Along with 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 would need to retake Crimea, said he believes long-range precision weapons are the key. “That’s how you defeat mass with precision.”

Any such weapon, he argued, “has got to be at the top of the list.”

Clea Caulcutt contributed reporting from Paris and Hans von der Buchard contributed from Berlin.

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