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Austin, Milley tout Ukraine commitment despite battlefield challenges

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The Biden administration called for increased air-defense donations to Ukraine on Tuesday, as Pentagon leaders vowed to sustain weapons supplies that Western nations hope will fuel a breakthrough in the country’s slow-going offensive against Russia.

Officials from more than 50 countries gathered here to discuss sourcing future military aid to Kyiv, now in the fourth month of a counteroffensive that so far has achieved only modest success in piercing thick, deadly defenses laid over the past year by Russian troops.

The meeting occurred as President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky prepared to address leaders at the United Nations in New York and, later this week, for a return trip to Washington where they are expected to press the case for additional funding and weaponry. The conflict’s toll on food and energy prices has fueled calls among developing countries for peace negotiations while, in the United States, there is growing reluctance among some Republicans to continue footing the bill for Ukraine.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States and its allies had “proven [their] staying power” by committing more than $76 billion in direct security aid, including more than $40 billion from the United States since Russian President Vladimir Putin dispatched forces into Ukraine in February 2022.

Austin said that refurbished American M1A1 Abrams tanks, in the latest show of allied nations’ evolving military aid to Kyiv, would soon arrive on the battlefield. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to address internal planning, said the tanks would be in Ukraine within days.

He also called on Ukraine’s backers to provide more artillery ammunition, along with air defense weapons like the HAWK, NASAMS, and IRIS-T systems that have been instrumental in defending against barrages of Russian missiles and Iranian-made drones over the past year. Ukrainian leaders say their country requires many more systems to be fully shielded.

“Air defense will continue to be Ukraine’s greatest need to protect the skies and the civilians and the cities as well as innocent people far away from the battlefield,” Austin told reporters. “Today, I challenge my fellow ministers to once again look into their stockpiles of 155mm ammunition and key air defense systems and interceptors to ensure that we are all giving everything that we can.”

The talks in Germany marked the fifteenth meeting of the “defense contact group” comprising ministers and other officials from nations backing Ukraine. Joining Western ministers for the first time was Ukraine’s new defense minister, Rustem Umerov, appointed by Zelensky in a recent shake-up.

Ukrainian forces are pursuing a multipronged strategy in their ongoing offensive, seeking to recapture priority areas in the country’s east while also attempting to push south toward Russian supply lines along the Sea of Azov. This week, Ukrainian officials said they had regained control of a village near the battered city of Bakhmut.

Hanging over the discussions are the challenges that Ukraine has faced in the operation, which has fallen short of hopes for a decisive advance. Early in the campaign, the difficulties posed by layers of mines and other Russian defenses prompted Ukraine to jettison a planned mechanized assault in favor of an artillery-heavy approach relying heavily on mine-clearing and small dismounted teams.

While some U.S. officials note that those tactics have conserved manpower and equipment, the approach has also fueled concerns about a protracted conflict that could strain the willingness of Western nations to fund an expensive, open-ended campaign.

A key to maintaining Ukraine’s combat power will be continued supplies of artillery ammunition, especially 155mm shells, a need that has set off a scramble to increase production in the United States and Europe. Kyiv’s artillery-heavy approach prompted the Biden administration to take the controversial step of supplying cluster munitions to Ukraine, which can pose grave risk to civilians.

Admiral Rob Bauer, chair of NATO’s military committee, linked the current ammunition shortage to the fact that increases in NATO defense budgets in recent years have been offset by rising weapons prices. He said another challenge was defense firms’ skepticism about future demand because of some countries’ spotty track record in following through on weaponry orders.

“We’re 18 months into the war, and we need this ammunition,” Bauer told reporters after talks with NATO military leaders in Norway ahead of the Ramstein meeting. “We need these capacities … to continue to support Ukraine and secondly to improve our own base.”

Ukraine has also been pushing for more sophisticated systems including American-made Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), which have a range of around 200 miles. While Ukrainian officials have clamored for the missiles for months, saying they will help neutralize Russia’s combat power by helping strike supply and command stations deep behind Russia’s front lines, U.S. officials have voiced concerns about American supplies.

It remains unclear whether Biden, as he did with other weapons systems such as the Abrams and the F-16 fighter jet, will yield to Ukrainian demands.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that offensive operations were inherently more difficult than defending territory and said that Ukraine still had time before inclement weather set in, when fighting would become more difficult. Even after that, he said, Ukraine could resume offensive operations once the ground freezes.

In an interview earlier this month, Milley said Ukraine had about 30 to 45 days of fighting weather left.

“There’s no intention whatsoever by the Ukrainians to stop fighting during the winter,” Milley said in remarks alongside Austin. “They have a strategic initiative right now.”

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