Russia may be planning to launch attacks on Ukraine with heavy air power to break a battlefield deadlock as NATO intelligence indicates Moscow is assembling fighter jets and helicopters near the border.
The deployment of aircraft would mean it is crucial to get air-defence systems into Ukraine as fast as possible as Russia has intensified its offensive with the anniversary of its invasion upcoming, NATO officials said on Tuesday.
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US defence chief Lloyd Austin, speaking at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels where officials were meeting, noted Ukraine’s air defences at the moment were “not enough and we’re going to keep pushing until we get more because that threat is out there”.
“We do know Russia has substantial aircraft … and a lot of capability left,” said Austin. “We want to make sure they have the ability to protect themselves in the event Russia decides to introduce its air force into the fight.”
NATO intelligence reports say Russia is “amassing fixed-wing and rotary aircraft close to the border with Ukraine”, the Financial Times quoted two defence officials as saying.
“The Russian land forces are pretty depleted so it’s the best indication that they will turn this into an air fight,” one told the Times. “If the Ukrainians are going to survive they need to have as many air defence capabilities and as much ammunition … as possible.”
Asked whether Ukraine’s allies discussed the issue of sending fighter jets to help the country in its war effort, Austin said, “I don’t have any announcement to make today.”
Western defence chiefs met to discuss both new arms provisions to Kyiv and maintenance of existing supplies – including artillery shells whose production can hardly keep pace with the war.
Ukraine renewed its appeal for fighter jets to help frustrate Moscow’s invasion as senior defence officials said the fight against Russia was approaching a critical stage.
Defence minister Oleksii Reznikov, when asked what military aid his country is seeking now, showed reporters an image of a fighter jet.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pushed hard for combat planes last week when he visited London, Paris and Brussels on just his second foreign trip since Russia invaded on February 24, 2022. His plea came days after Western allies pledged to provide Kyiv with battle tanks.
The possibility of sending combat aircraft to Ukraine was still being discussed. The United States has said no to sending Ukraine fighter jets but the United Kingdom is assessing the possibility and, on Tuesday, Dutch defence minister Kajsa Ollongren said providing jets “has to be part of the consideration”.
Ollongren said Kyiv had requested US-made F-16 jets from the Netherlands.
“We have to debate this with our partners, also with the United States, and we have to think about feasibility,” she said. “It is something that will take time and it is best done behind closed doors.”
Slovakia has said it is willing to discuss sending Soviet MIG-29 planes to help replace losses to Ukraine’s airforce.
But German defence minister Boris Pistorius said procuring ammunition and air-defence systems is “much more important at the moment than the discussion about fighter jets”.
Pistorius told reporters getting pilots up to speed on new aircraft and “training just to fly them takes several months, never mind teaching the abilities needed to deploy the weapons systems”.
Offensives and counterattacks
Meanwhile, the Kremlin said NATO was continuing to demonstrate hostility towards Russia and becoming more involved in the war in Ukraine.
“NATO is an organisation which is hostile to us and which proves this hostility every day,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “It is trying its best to make its involvement in the conflict around Ukraine as clear as possible.”
Moscow has said weapons supplies to Ukraine by NATO countries are dragging out the conflict and raising the possibility of further escalation.
On the battlefield, the fighting continued to rage. Russia’s forces have pressed in the east of Ukraine while bolstering their defensive lines in the south. The war has been largely static during the winter months, though both sides are expected to increase attacks when the weather improves.
Austin said he expected Ukraine to launch an offensive against Russia in the coming months.
“Ukraine wants to create momentum … We expect to see them conduct an offensive sometime in the spring,” he told reporters.
Russia is introducing a number of new troops to the battlefield but many are ill-trained and ill-equipped, Austin added.
“Ukraine has urgent requirements to help it meet this crucial moment in the course of the war. The Kremlin is still betting it can wait us out but one year on we are as united as ever,” he said.
The top US general, Mark Milley, took a shot at the leadership in Moscow saying it had already “lost”.
“Russia is now a global pariah and the world remains inspired by Ukrainian bravery and resilience. In short, Russia has lost. They’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically,” said Milley.