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Slovakia will send Ukraine S-300 air defenses ‘immediately’ if NATO backfills its weapons

The Slovakian defense minister said his country could not give its S-300 missiles to Ukraine without creating a ‘security gap’ within NATO

Slovakia’s defense minister, Jaroslav Nad’, speaks during a news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Bratislava, Slovakia, on March 17. (Radovan Stoklasa/Reuters)
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Slovakia’s defense minister said Thursday that his country is prepared to send long-range surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine “immediately” — provided that Western allies give them a “proper replacement” to avoid creating a security gap.

“The only strategic air defense system that we have in Slovakia is the S-300 system,” the defense minister, Jaroslav Nad’, said, referring to powerful Soviet-origin weapons that would enable the Ukrainian military to shoot down Russian warplanes flying several miles above the ground. Ukraine had a few before the invasion and has pleaded for more as Russian forces have intensified their bombardment of key cities.

Speaking in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Nad’ intimated that, “Should there be a situation that we have a proper replacement — or we have a capability guaranteed for a certain period of time — then we will be willing to discuss” equipping Ukraine with the air defenses it seeks.

When asked if the United States was prepared to send Slovakia replacements, such as Patriot missiles, Austin demurred. “These are things we will continue to work with all of our allies on, and certainly this is not just a U.S. issue. It’s a NATO issue,” he said.

Pentagon dials up size, scope of Ukrainian military aid

Help could come from elsewhere. Earlier Thursday — just minutes before the leaders’ joint appearance — Germany’s Defense Ministry indicated in a tweet that it would deploy some of its Patriot systems to Slovakia. “We continue to increase our engagement on the eastern flank,” the Germans said.

The impromptu offer from Slovakia bore a striking similarity to one from its neighbor to the north, Poland, which this month sought to provide Ukraine with MiG-29 fighter jets in exchange for American-made F-16s. Poland, in an unusual public announcement, declared it was willing to transfer the jets to U.S. custody, allowing for Washington — not Warsaw — to give them to Ukraine. U.S. officials were caught off-guard by the move and promptly declined, saying that such an arrangement would have limited value given Russia’s surface-to-air missile capability and the limited frequency with which Ukraine’s military is flying its existing jets.

Slovakia is among the handful of Eastern European countries to which the United States has appealed for help enhancing Ukraine’s ability to police the country’s airspace. Officials have said that Soviet-made surface-to-air missile systems are familiar to the Ukrainian military personnel who would operate them, alleviating the need for training and eliminating the risk that more-advanced weapons might fall into Russian hands.

S-300 missiles have emerged as a centerpiece of Ukrainian demands because they are designed to hit targets at higher altitude and longer-range than the Javelin and Stinger missiles the United States has supplied to their forces directly. Yet the countries that have them want to make sure that in helping the Ukrainians, they do not inadvertently make themselves more vulnerable to a potential Russian attack.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, this week raised the prospect that in lieu of S-300s, Western countries might be able to facilitate the transfer of other air defense systems the Ukrainians are familiar with.

Ukraine has asked for the SA-7 Grail and SA-8 Gecko in addition to the S-300, said a U.S. official familiar with the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the discussions remain highly sensitive. The SA-7, also known as the 9K32 Strela-2, is a shoulder-fired missile system that can reach aircraft flying more than two miles high. The SA-8, known as the 9K33 Osa in Russian-speaking countries, can reach planes up to three miles high, according to a U.S. Army fact sheet.

The S-300 can reach altitudes of up to 18 miles, depending on the kind of missile it is firing.

Pentagon rules out sending warplanes to Ukraine, says benefit would be ‘low’

The Ukrainians already consider the discussion around surface-to-air missiles to be a compromise. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief ask of the West has been to help enforce a no-fly zone over his country — or short of that, to give Ukraine MiG-29 warplanes so it could do so itself. The United States has resisted both of those proposals, arguing they would not be effective and risk being seen by Russia as escalatory.

On Thursday, Austin pointed to a recent Russian cruise missile strike on a training center near Lviv, near Poland’s border, to emphasize the point.

“Those were actually fired from inside of Russia,” Austin noted. “So a no-fly zone would not have prevented that activity.”

Austin suggested Thursday that there could be “a number of things” that could be used to counter Russian rockets, missiles and artillery.

“We have seen that drones have been very effective. We also have seen that having the ability to conduct counter-fire with rockets and artillery is also very effective. And so I think, increasingly, we’ll see the Ukrainian forces turn to those methods to counter that,” he said.

Lawmakers have called for the Biden administration to provide Ukraine with more radar that can be used to quickly locate where Russian forces are launching long-range weapons. To date, the White House has provided four counter-artillery radar and four counter-mortar radar systems, according to a White House fact sheet released Wednesday.