By Emily Rauhala

October 13, 2022

The Washington Post

BRUSSELS — Outraged over Russia’s recent strikes on civilian infrastructure targets, which disrupted power supplies in cities across Ukraine, NATO countries are vowing to boost support for Ukrainian forces, focusing in particular on the advanced air defense systems at the top of Kyiv’s wish list.

“We will stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters Thursday as defense ministers convened for a second day of meetings at the alliance headquarters in Brussels. “In particular we will provide more air defense systems to Ukraine.”

Stoltenberg’s pledge echoed the resolve of U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and other officials who voiced dismay over the Russian airstrikes. The defense ministers on Thursday will discuss NATO’s response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, including military aid, the protection of critical infrastructure and nuclear planning, among other issues.

The push on air defense comes at a difficult and dangerous moment in the conflict, as NATO countries and other nations backing Ukraine have grown increasingly alarmed and angry about Russia’s increasingly brutal tactics and prospects for a negotiated peace seem almost nonexistent.

The Group of Seven industrialized democracies on Tuesday called for Russia’s full and unconditional withdrawal from occupied Ukrainian territory, and demanded future assurances for Ukraine’s security and reconstruction of the country to be paid for by Russia.

Senior Russia officials, meanwhile, have said their military objectives remain unchanged and have lashed out at the United States and the United Kingdom, accusing them of undermining potential negotiations and directing Kyiv to prolong the war.

A string of battlefield setbacks have Russian forces on the back foot, NATO officials and diplomats say, but there is no sign that Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to back down, and Russia has been taking steps to tighten its grip on occupied areas that it claims to have annexed. The territorial seizures are a violation of international law.

With its stocks of precision ammunition running low, the Russian side has stepped up attacks using longer range Soviet-era munitions, taking aim at Ukrainian infrastructure and civilian targets far from the front line, a senior NATO official said — a sign, some fear, of what’s to come.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday that his country has only 10 percent of the air defense hardware it needs, and NATO powers have scrambled to respond to his pleas for help.

Germany has begun sending four of its state-of-the-art IRIS-T air defense systems to Ukraine.

On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview that his country would deliver radar and air defense systems to Ukraine in the coming weeks. He did not say which systems. Early Thursday, Britain made its own announcement: It will send Ukraine AMRAAM antiaircraft missiles.

“Russia’s latest indiscriminate strikes on civilian areas in Ukraine warrant further support to those seeking to defend their nation,” British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in the statement.

The AMRAAM missiles, Wallace said, will be used alongside U.S. air defense systems known as NASAMS. U.S. officials said earlier this week that two NASAMS systems were weeks away from delivery to Ukraine and efforts are underway to get them there more quickly.

Defense ministers from 14 NATO allies and Finland have also agreed to develop the “European Sky Shield Initiative,” a German-led push to create a European air and missile defense system through joint acquisition of air defense equipment and missiles by European nations.

In Brussels, the United States and allies stressed unity on Thursday, but just beneath the surface there are signs of division — and distractions — even within NATO.

On Thursday, as NATO defense ministers gathered in Brussels, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country belongs to NATO, met with Putin in Kazakhstan. Erdogan has sought out a role as a negotiator, and helped broker a recent prisoner exchange.

But the Turkish leader does not speak for other allies, and it was unclear what goals he might pursue, given the new clarity of the G-7 — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., the U.S. and E.U. — in endorsing Zelensky’s definition of a “just peace,” which includes full restoration of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.

In Brussels, NATO officials and diplomats have been careful not to say much about the alliance’s nuclear strategy, stressing that it is safer and more effective to say less, not more, about NATO’s nuclear planning and training.

And yet, the day before NATO’s nuclear planning meeting, Macron decided to share his thoughts on French nuclear deterrence, telling French media Wednesday that a ballistic nuclear attack on Ukraine would not yield a French response.

France traditionally cuts its own path in nuclear doctrine and does not participate in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, despite being the only nuclear-armed power in the E.U.

On Wednesday, Austin convened the sixth meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a coalition of more than 50 countries that have pledged military support to Ukraine.

Austin decried the “malice and cruelty” of Russia’s recent escalation and promised ongoing support. “We’re going to do everything we can, as fast as we can, to help the Ukrainian forces get the capability they need to protect the Ukrainian people,” he said.

But getting Ukraine the systems they need — and making sure they are usable — is a complex task, U.S. and NATO officials said. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said supplying air defenses will be “quite complicated from a technical standpoint” and will “take a bit of time.”

NATO’s 30 allies were joined in Brussels this week by Sweden and Finland, which have applied to join the alliance and for the first time were participating in a defense ministerial as “invitees,” giving them broader access to most NATO discussions.

But their membership still hinges on approval from Turkey, which has hinted it might seek to split the Nordic neighbors by ratifying Finland’s application while demanding additional concessions from Sweden.