RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — Western allies are increasingly turning their attention to training Ukrainian soldiers and trying to figure out how to keep them armed as supplies from donor nations run out.
The issue was front and center on Thursday as senior defense officials from some 50 countries gathered at Ramstein Air Base in Germany for a meeting of a U.S.-led coordination group to support Ukraine in its war against Russia.
The meeting comes as Kyiv pursues a tough counter-offensive, hoping to reclaim Russian-held territory before the winter freezes. Yet, while Moscow’s brutal onslaught first garnered close attention in the West and an outpouring of support – not to mention guns – governments are now facing growing economic pressures at home.
The Ramstein rally – the fifth in a series of defense support talks – was held in the shadow of a looming energy crisis across Europe, with the European Union weighing unprecedented measures to reduce stratospheric prices. Officials also fear that the economic woes could undermine public support for tough measures against Russia.
Meanwhile, some governments say they simply gave almost all they could.
“The war is at another key moment,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said as he opened Thursday’s meeting, highlighting Ukraine’s counteroffensive. “The face of war is changing,” he said, “and so is the mission of this contact group.”
Officials participating in the group confirmed that while arms transfers are still a major objective, the challenges – and priorities – increase as war becomes a long-term conflict.
“In recent months we have been donating from our own stocks,” Norwegian Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram told POLITICO in an interview earlier this week. “But eventually and gradually that will change – because we have limited resources, limited stock.”
Now, Gram said, “the talks are more about how we can cooperate to get new equipment and supplies for Ukraine, in close cooperation with industry.” And with Ukraine suffering heavy casualties, he added, new soldiers must be trained and taught to “maintain and repair donated equipment”.
Despite an ever-changing focus, the pressing realities of the fight — and the weapons needed — were always before Ramstein officials, literally.
When the ministers arrived for the gathering, they each found a document titled “Urgent Needs of Ukraine” on their table. The top priority, according to the document, is more NATO-standard rocket launchers and ammunition, followed by more howitzers. The list also highlighted a need for radars, air defense and combat aircraft.
And officials used the rally to unveil a new batch of weapons that would be sent to Ukraine, with Austin confirming that the United States had just committed an additional $675 million in equipment such as rocket launchers, ammunition, humvees and anti-tank systems.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also made an unscheduled visit to Ukraine, where he revealed a $2 billion long-term military funding pledge to Ukraine and 18 of its neighbors.
But much of the Ramstein meeting revealed the changing mentality among the allies. In comments Thursday, Austin said training and weapons production will be among the group’s future priorities.
“We are working together to arm and train Ukraine in the current fight. Yet we also work together to help Ukraine…develop capable and durable forces to defend itself and deter long-term aggression,” Austin said.
He said the allies plan to meet “in the coming weeks” to discuss how the defense industry “could best equip Ukraine’s future forces with the capabilities they need.”
Several defense ministers echoed the need to address training and industrial capabilities.
Portuguese Defense Minister Helena Carreiras said the US-led group was “ready to consider the long-term consequences of the conflict”, although it remains focused on “meeting short-term needs in the face of the current offensive on the ground”.
The Belgian Defense Minister, Ludivine Dedonder, for her part indicated in a note that “the orientation of the Ramstein group is called upon to evolve over time according to the evolution of the needs expressed by Ukraine”.
Dedonder pointed to the European Union’s decision last week towards the creation of an EU military training mission for Ukraine as “an example of the Ramstein Group’s move towards greater coordinated coherence for maximum efficiency”.
The authorities are also mindful of domestic political pressures, which are intensifying in many Western capitals.
In a nod to these concerns, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote in an op-ed before the meeting that “our unity and solidarity will be seriously tested as families and businesses are feeling the pinch of soaring energy prices and the cost of living caused by Russia’s brutal invasion.
But, the NATO chief said, “we must stay the course and resist tyranny – for Ukraine’s sake and ours.”
And while Austin praised a “unity of purpose” around the table, behind the scenes at Ramstein, Ukraine’s partners continued to hold somewhat divergent views on what constitutes sufficient support for Ukraine.
In an interview on the sidelines of the meeting, Baiba Bļodniece – a parliamentary secretary who represented Latvia in the discussion – said Eastern countries are always pushing their Western European partners to go further.
Over the past seven months, “Eastern countries are saying that we need to support Ukraine more,” Bļodniece said. “And of course, these countries, [the] the larger western countries that have these heavy weapons systems and longer range artillery and other things, they have to.
“We will push them,” she added, noting that while she feels there is a “common understanding” there is a need to see more support. “I will say that Germany could do a bit more.”
But many Western officials say there is considerable common ground.
“We all agree,” Portuguese Defense Minister Carreiras said, “that Ukraine needs our support.”
Ukrainian officials have gone to great lengths to express their gratitude even as they push for more weapons.
“We are really happy with [the] work of the contact group,” a senior Ukrainian official said earlier this week.
“In times of war, there are never enough weapons, resources,” said Oleksandr Zavitnevych, chairman of Ukraine’s parliamentary committee for national security, defense and intelligence.
Speaking about the counter-offensive, Zavitnevych said Kyiv needed more training and soldiers, but also more weapons and more ammunition.
Ukraine’s partners, he told POLITICO, “surely understand that we are now talking about how to protect the whole democratic world.”
And while some Ukrainian officials acknowledge that the Western alliance presents different perspectives, they also insist that these divisions do not impact the bigger picture – yet.
“We have to see this as part of the democratic process and we have to be realistic about what countries can and cannot do,” said Yuriy Sak, adviser to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov.
The divisions are “part of the process”, he said, but they will not impact support for Ukraine on a “serious level”.