RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The United States’ top defense officials on Tuesday urged more nations to provide more weaponry, at a faster pace, to Ukraine as it prepares for the next phase of its defense against Russian aggressors.
Attendees at the closed-door gathering included senior defense officials from NATO and non-NATO nations, who were shown detailed maps of Russian troops now concentrated in southern and eastern Ukraine, where the U.S. military assesses they hope to encircle and bombard with long-range artillery and air power positions held along a line of contact by up to half the Ukrainian army.
Among the briefers were Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Air Force Gen. Tod D. Wolters, the senior U.S. military officer in Europe. “Time is not on Ukraine’s side,” Milley said in comments to the group that were provided to reporters traveling with him. “The outcome of this battle, right here, today, is dependent on the people in this room.”
The Kremlin this week accused the United States of waging a proxy war with Russia, and officials in Moscow raised the specter of potentially dire consequences. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday said there was a “serious” risk of nuclear war over Ukraine. “It’s real. It shouldn’t be underestimated,” he said in an interview on state television.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby criticized the warning on Tuesday and said the U.S. nuclear deterrence posture has not changed. “It’s obviously unhelpful,” Kirby said of Lavrov’s remarks. “A nuclear war cannot be won and it shouldn’t be fought,” he said.
A Ukrainian delegation at the meeting in Germany headed by Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov thanked the donors and appealed for more artillery and weapons to repel Russian bombardment and stop their advance on the ground. “We need weapons,” Reznikov tweeted after the meeting. “Modern weapons. A large number of modern heavy weapons.”
Austin appealed for a sustained effort to protect Ukraine, telling reporters that Tuesday’s meeting will evolve into a monthly discussion to improve collaboration, transparency and understanding of what is required. Ukraine’s military needs to be strengthened “for the long haul,” he said, and that must be “done right.”
Austin also addressed what the effort to aid Ukraine “will take from our defense industrial bases. That means dealing with the tremendous demand that we’re facing for munitions and weapons platforms,” he said, in some cases raising questions about “meeting our own requirements, and those of our Allies and partners.”
Since the Russian invasion began, the United States has sent 1,400 Stingers, the man-portable air defense missile system produced by Raytheon, to Ukraine, and the Defense and State departments have scoured the arsenals of other nations that have purchased them in search of more. In an earnings call Tuesday, Raytheon chief executive Gregory J. Hayes said the cupboard is virtually bare.
First entered into U.S. service in 1981, Stingers have not been on the U.S. military purchase list for a number of years, with the production line all but closed down. Many of the parts required to make them are no longer available, and some of the system will have to be redesigned, Hayes said.
A U.S. defense official spoke of efforts that began last fall to assess Ukraine’s air defense capabilities and position its forces to best utilize sophisticated weaponry and tactics against a larger opposing force. Ukrainian Stinger operators are continually being trained in Germany, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the Defense Department.
Outside the Ukraine meeting, U.S. and foreign officials outlined the changes Russia’s invasion has brought. Finnish Brig. Gen. Sami Nurmi, whose country shares a border of more than 800 miles with Russia, explained that preinvasion, only 23 percent of Finns favored joining NATO. The Russian action, he said, was a “game changer,” and the pro-NATO number has risen to 68 percent, with Finland, a country of 5.5 million people, so far contributing $30 million in equipment to Ukraine.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday said the United States would not oppose Ukraine becoming “neutral” and swearing off NATO membership as part of a peace deal with Russia, but said there was “no sign to date” that Russian President Vladimir Putin is serious about “meaningful negotiations.”
The U.S. defense official described a bonanza of information the American military has gleaned about Russian “tactics and procedures” by watching “how they perform in combat” since the Feb. 24 invasion. “We call it ‘free chicken,’” the official said. “What would take years and years for the intelligence community to find out [about] how they do things, we’re getting free every day,” allowing the military to “create profiles that will help us for years and years.”
Both Austin and Milley addressed Austin’s comments, following his Sunday trip to Kyiv with Blinken, that the United States hopes the war in Ukraine will result in a militarily “weakened” Russia.
“We’ve been pretty clear from the outset,” Austin said at his news conference. “We do want to make it harder for Russia to threaten its neighbors.” In the 62 days since the invasion began, he said, Russian land forces had been affected “in a very significant way” with substantial casualties, depleted stockpiles and loss of equipment, including the sinking this month of the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, by a Ukrainian missile attack.
Russia will have difficulty reconstituting its forces because of Western sanctions and trade restrictions, he said.
At the end of the day, Milley said in an interview with CNN, achieving the goal of an intact and free Ukraine is “going to involve a weakened Russia, a strengthened NATO … and a unity of the West.”
The Pentagon said Tuesday that it is monitoring reports of explosions in the breakaway republic of Transnistria in Moldova, an area bordering Ukraine, after the blasts prompted Moldova’s president to convene a meeting of the country’s security council.
A Russian commander last week said Moscow aims to create a passage through southern Ukraine that would create a land link to the pro-Russian enclave, sparking fears that the invasion could spill over into Moldova. Austin said the United States is still looking into the attacks, which hit a radio tower and a security headquarters.
The talks in Germany took place ahead of a rare meeting in Moscow between U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and Putin and Lavrov — an encounter that only added to doubts over the potential for successful peace talks in the near term.
“I had a very frank discussion with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and it is clear that there are two different positions on what is happening in Ukraine,” Guterres said at a news conference after the meeting.
A U.N. statement said Putin did agree in principle to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to facilitate civilian evacuations from the Azovstal iron and steel plant in Mariupol, the besieged Ukrainian port city. Putin said he has ordered no additional assaults on the plant, where the city’s last defenders are barricaded and civilians are sheltering.
The latest wave of aid for Ukraine, following President Biden’s announcement last week of substantial new shipments of heavy artillery and armed drones, includes armored vehicles from Canada and additional antiaircraft capabilities from Britain. Germany announced Tuesday it would send 50 self-propelled Cheetah antiaircraft weapons, which fire 35mm rounds from a tracked, armored chassis resembling a tank.
The new German contribution, announced here by Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, came as questions over whether to send arms to Ukraine have fractured Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition government in recent weeks, with support mounting for equipment delivery.
Scholz had said he could not spare supplies from the German army’s stockpiles, but the government was accused of scrubbing heavy armaments from a German arms industry list of what was available for Kyiv. Lambrecht acknowledged the criticism but said “the numbers speak a different language.”
“It is important to me that we continue to stand together here and not allow ourselves to be driven apart,” she said.
Germany also announced Tuesday that it hopes to find an alternative to Russian oil in the “coming days,” after earlier pushing back on a European Union-wide embargo, ramping up economic pressure on Moscow.
The inclusion of non-NATO countries at the meeting here, including Kenya, Tunisia and Japan, among others, was part of an effort to extend both substantive and symbolic support for Ukraine beyond Europe and the alliance. Several other countries, such as Israel and Qatar, had representatives at the table, although they were not included on the official list of attendees.
As he welcomed delegations to what he described as a “historic” gathering, Austin said Ukraine’s “resistance has brought inspiration to the free world and even greater resolve to NATO.” Putin, he said, “never imagined that the world would rally behind Ukraine so swiftly and surely.”
Lamothe, Cadell and Hudson reported from Washington. Loveday Morris in Berlin, Paulina Villegas in Mexico City and Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.