A year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine turned Europe into a battlefield and NATO into a de-facto back office of a fiercely fighting army, NATOs Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has strongly asserted the need to respond and adapt to constantly changing numbers and figures on both sides of the equation.
The main focus for NATO is restocking its munitions stockpiles and giving Ukraine access to more shells for newly acquired and existing artillery and air defense systems.
“This is a war of attrition and a battle of logistics,” Stoltenberg said.
According to some estimates, Ukraine is firing up to 6,000-7,000 artillery shells each day – around a third of the daily amount that Russia is using.
Munitions and logistics were a central topic at the recent gathering of top military officials and diplomats at NATO headquarters.
"We are in the race for logistics. Speed will save lives," Stoltenberg stated in his opening remarks at the NATO DefMin session on Feb/ 15. "Key capabilities like ammunition, fuel and spare parts must reach Ukraine before Russia can seize the initiative on the battlefield. Speed will save lives."
Stoltenberg echoed President Volodymyr Zelensky, who emphasized that “speed and volume” are critical in Ukraine’s preparation for new developments on the battlefield.
But the news from the latest DefMin session was less convincing.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised in January that Germany and its allies would quickly put together two battalions of battle tanks for Ukraine, while the U.S. pledged to send 31 of its M1 Abrams.
Germany and Portugal are still the only two nations to commit to sending the A6 version of the Leopard 2.
Operating on diesel, and unlike U.S. Abrams which roll on jet fuel, Leopard 2 tanks are the best option for the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) under current circumstances, when logistics, in particular the delivery of fuel, remain crucial issues.
With 14 of these machines pledged by the government in Berlin and three from the Portuguese, Ukraine is still far from receiving full-fledged shipments.
"We will not reach the size of a battalion," German Defense minister Boris Pistorius told reporters Wednesday after meeting NATO counterparts in Brussels.
The minister's statement marks a setback, while the UAF expects intensifying fighting in the coming weeks.
"People here understand there will be another push from the Russian side. There is enough data" – a senior diplomat working in NATO headquarters, authorized to speak to the press without revealing his identity, told Kyiv Post.
Jets not on the table
Another popular question within NATO headquarters this week was about jets.
At the beginning of the month, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said "Nothing was off the table" for Ukraine, including fighter aircraft.
Yet, it's a tricky promise when it comes to the Brits. Severe cuts of financing of the legendary Royal Air Force (RAF) have downgraded British capacity for full-scale military aid to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, a U.S. general has said that Britain is no longer a top fighting force.
“There are shortcuts that speed up the training of blistering good pilots,” according to an officer of one NATO country not authorized to speak with the press. “You have to fly low to avoid Russian radars and shoot precisely. That's it.”
In NATO headquarters, U.S. defense secretary Lloyd Austin, along with Stoltenberg, were pressed by Western and Ukrainian media on the issue of the delivery of F16s – fighter jets of the older generation that could replace the shrinking fleet of Ukrainian MIGs.
“I don't have any announcements on aircraft to make today,” Austin told reporters after leading a Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at NATO headquarters.
While both Austin and Stoltenberg were reluctant to give a direct answer, Estonian Defense Minister Hunno Pevkur bluntly told Kyiv Post, that fighter jets “were not on the table” at this week's NATO-Ukrainian meetings.
"At this very moment, we are more concentrated on increasing the number of trained people” Pevkur said.
"Why can Finland and Sweden just say "we want to join NATO, and ‘boom!’ – it happens. Yet with Ukraine, it just doesn't happen. It's hypocrisy," says Goncalo Guedes, a 30-year-old Portuguese citizen living in Brussels.
"We are organizing rallies in support of Ukraine. Brussels, as distant and distracted from Ukrainian reality as it is, has never been so full of grit and vigor," says Olga Vegera, who returned to Belgium from Ukraine in Feb. 2022
From a practical point of view for Vegera and many others like her, being a citizen of a NATO state meant receiving accurate information on what to expect.
On Jan. 24, 2022, exactly a month before Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border to attack Kyiv, all Belgian citizens registered in Ukraine received an urgent e-mail from their consulate warning of upcoming turmoil.
Vegera, like many other holders of EU and U.S. passports, received warnings from their governments.
Embassies of NATO states organized meetings for the holders of their national passports. Ukrainian employees were never invited.
Ukrainians, however close they were to Western allies, were not receiving direct hints and tips on what to do in case of an invasion, relying on mixed signals with no clear message being sent.
The country was about to enter the hottest stage of the bloodiest war of the century, relying on scattered intelligence, intuition and, as happened later, the charity of the Western bloc.
Trust, apart from compassion and sympathy, remained an issue for Western Ukrainian partners.
As the latest Ramstein meeting showed, it still is.
The door that is neither open nor closed
PEW research shows that as the U.S. ramps up military aid to Ukraine, the share of Americans who say the U.S. is providing too much support has grown.
Just over a quarter (26%) of Americans now say the U.S. is providing too much support to Ukraine, while 31% say it is giving the right amount, and 20% would like to see the U.S. give Ukraine additional assistance.
There has also been an increase in the share of Democrats who say the U.S. is providing too much support to Ukraine. Still, the figure remains in the minority at only 15%, up 5% on March 2022.
Aware of that softening of U.S. political support and taking into account the looming U.S. elections in 2024, some lawmakers from the Eastern flank of NATO said they view 2023 as the year to lock in a NATO membership invitation for Ukraine.
But there is one common stance in NATO rhetoric – Ukraine can only join NATO after the end of the full-scale war.
"When the war is over, Ukraine should become a full member of NATO. The key issue is to avoid political ‘grey zones’ because they are a temptation for other wars," – Jüri Luik, permanent representative of Estonia to NATO, tells Kyiv Post.
Yet, the "open door" policy of NATO, mocked in Ukraine due to its continuing resistance towards Ukraine's membership, remains out of sight for the only country in the world to do NATO's job – kick back the tentacles of the last aggressive totalitarian power on the European continent.
Answering Kyiv Post's question on the possible timeframe and the road map to Ukraine's NATO membership, Stoltenberg went far beyond his comments on the current tactical situation on the frontline.
"The only way… to ensure that Ukraine can move towards closer Euro-Atlantic cooperation is to ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign independent nation… And we [will] also work on more long-term partnership helping Ukraine to move from Soviet-era weapons, doctrines and standards to NATO standards to improve interoperability on security and defense reform. All of that [will] move Ukraine closer to the NATO alliance."
Soviet tactics and doctrines have been a plague for the UAF during the first years of war on its land.
In the midst of the corruption scandal within his ministry, Oleksii Reznikov, defense minister of Ukraine, avoided contact with the Ukrainian press in the first days of gathering of his NATO counterparts.
Overpriced food for the soldiers, which triggered a corruption scandal in Ukraine, resulted in rotations in Reznikov's office and criminal investigations by the local authorities.
But eggs and potatoes were not the focus of NATO allies, listening to Reznikov in Brussels this week. On the discussion menu were munitions, weapons and cash from the West.
The issue of how to ensure greater accountability regarding weapons provided by partners was also discussed, among other topics, during a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on Feb. 14.
"We invite any country, if necessary, to check up on the unit, the battalion, the place where the weapons from their country are located,” Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told journalists after this meeting. "That is, if they are ready to come to the battlefield; if not, we are ready to provide them with any documents,” he added.
Stoltenberg, answering Kyiv Post's question on the Reznikov case and due diligence of Western aid, was as laconic as he could be.
"Allies are constantly working with the Ukrainian authorities to ensure that all the money, all the funding ends up where it should. We have very close contact with them. We're working on that all the time to ensure that we have the necessary oversight and transparency" Stoltenberg said.
In the summer of 2022, the Financial Times reported that NATO and EU states were pushing for better tracking of weapons supplied to Ukraine in response to fears that criminal groups are smuggling them out of the country and onto Europe's black market.
In the early years of Russian aggression (dating back to 2014), witnesses reported on weapons leakages from old Soviet stockpiles of weapons and munitions, with old Kalashikovs and grenade launchers being stolen from the military bases.
However, the illicit activities related to the first years of war have not been documented since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.
"We are dealing with an extremely sensitive subject here, and we have to deal with somebody we know and trust", a senior diplomat from a NATO country tells Kyiv Post.
"Reznikov is extremely popular here. Everybody knows him. And we've got to have someone we know. If there is any shadow of a doubt — it would be known here.”
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