As roughly $137bn in military and financial aid to Ukraine remained stalled in Washington and Brussels, individual European allies began to make bilateral pledges worth billions to ensure that Ukraine will remain capable of resisting Russia this year.
That resistance remained in place during the past week, with ground troops holding a 1,000km (621-mile) line against Russian assaults in what their commander called an “active defence”, and Ukraine’s Air Force seizing an opportunity to destroy one of only a handful of Russian reconnaissance planes.
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Ukraine destroyed the Beriev A-50 on Monday somewhere over the Sea of Azov, killing all of its crew, its commander in chief said. An Ilyushin-22 command aircraft was also effectively destroyed, though it managed to land. Ukraine’s southern command said the A-50 was one of only three operational such aircraft and helped direct missile attacks.
Russia had fired 40 drones and missiles into Ukraine two days earlier. Ukrainian defenders shot down eight missiles and said they disabled another 20 or so with electronic jamming. As if to prove missile capability after the downing of the A-50, Russia attacked again on Wednesday, wounding 17 people in central Kharkiv.
Events in the air were perhaps the most kinetic in a week of static front lines. Ukrainian commander of ground forces Oleksandr Syrskiy said his troops were on “active defence” as Russia pressed for full control of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and the reconquest of Kharkiv and Kherson.
“Our goals remain unchanged: holding our positions … exhausting the enemy by inflicting maximum losses,” Syrskiy said.
Syrskiy’s remarks appeared to confirm that Russia had taken the initiative in attacking. “The initiative is completely in the hands of the Russian armed forces,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a meeting with local government leaders on Tuesday. “If [this] continues, Ukrainian statehood may suffer an irreparable, very serious blow,” Putin said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reacted to those remarks the following day as he addressed the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, saying Putin would never give up his maximalist goals in Ukraine.
“If we have to fight Putin together, years in advance, isn’t it better to end him now, while our brave men and women are already doing it? They are the world’s chance,” Zelenskyy said.
As the two leaders’ defiant positions suggested another year of bitter war in Ukraine and conflict persisted in Gaza and the Red Sea, rearmament was becoming a theme for Europe as well as Ukraine.
“We need a warfighting transformation of NATO,” its Military Committee chief, Dutch Admiral Rob Bauer, said as he opened a two-day meeting of defence ministers in Brussels on Wednesday.
NATO members were living in “an era in which anything can happen at any time, an era in which we need to expect the unexpected, an era in which we need to focus on effectiveness in order to be fully effective”, he said.
That thinking was reflected in the European Commission, as well.
Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said last week that he would propose a 100-billion-euro ($109bn) European Defence Investment Programme next month, to expand capacity in European defence industries.
Last March, the EU pledged a million artillery shells to Ukraine within a year. By November, they had delivered less than a third of that, but Breton confirmed they would fulfil their pledge by early this year, and the European Commission confirmed that EU production capacity would reach a million shells a year by early this year, matching US production capacity.
Russian shell production capacity matched the US and EU combined, said the deputy head of Ukraine’s military intelligence Vadym Skibitskyi. Russia’s covert mobilisation had also enlisted half a million men last year, meaning that it had been able to overcome attrition to field 462,000 soldiers in Ukraine.
Given these Russian capacities, Ukraine’s rearmament was an urgent matter, Zelenskyy said.
Some $61bn in aid for 2024 remained stuck in Congressional deliberations in Washington due to Republican opposition, and two packages of 50 billion euros and 20 billion euros ($54bn to $22bn) were stalled in Brussels due to Hungarian opposition.
US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the US had suspended security assistance to Ukraine as a result of the impasse.
In Europe, individual countries chose to move ahead bilaterally.
Estonian President Alar Karis said last week that Estonia would provide 1.2 billion euros ($1.3bn) in aid including howitzers and ammunition over the next four years. Estonia was committing 0.25 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to Ukraine’s defence over the next four years, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas had said days earlier.
A staunch Ukraine ally which also shares a border with Russia, Estonia last November said it was raising defence spending to 3 percent of GDP and urged other European nations to double their expenditure.
Latvia on the same day pledged howitzers, shells, drones and helicopters, among other things.
On Friday, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signed an agreement with Kyiv to help develop Ukraine’s drone production capacity, and said he would spend $3.2bn in defence of Ukraine this year.
French President Emmanuel Macron was due in Kyiv to make his own pledges next month. He told a news conference that long-range SCALP missiles would be included in defence deliveries already under way. “We are going to deliver a lot more equipment and help Ukraine with what it needs to defend its skies,” he said.
Germany last month said it would double its military aid to Ukraine in 2024 to eight billion euros ($9bn).
“Russia’s war in Ukraine, as a political issue, is slipping from the mainstream, and is now largely a preoccupation for those situated near Europe’s eastern border,” said the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Though still well-resourced, Russia was not without its problems.
Skibitskyi said it was having trouble building certain types of missiles due to sanctions. And secretive Russian enlistment of naturalised citizens – suspected to have begun in 2023 – may have contributed to a massive fire that destroyed a seven-hectare warehouse of online retailer Wildberries, in St Petersburg last week.
Russian sources said the fire was preceded by a fight among migrant workers there, and a raid by authorities who pressed workers into service with the military.