The West must focus on Ukraine at the crucial moment, says the Pentagon chief

The West must focus on Ukraine at the crucial moment, says the Pentagon chief

Ukrainian soldiers ride on American M109 155mm self-propelled howitzers, amid the Russian attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine, June 13, 2022. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo

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BRUSSELS, June 15 (Reuters) – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was at a “crucial” moment and the United States and its allies could not lose focus on the three-month conflict, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday, as western countries pledged more arms to Kyiv.

Austin was speaking at a gathering of dozens of defense ministers on the sidelines of a NATO ministerial meeting. It is the third time that the group of nearly 50 countries has met to discuss and coordinate aid to Ukraine. The previous face-to-face meeting took place in April at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Ukraine needs 1,000 howitzers, 500 tanks and 1,000 drones, among other heavy weapons, said presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak on Monday. Western countries have promised NATO standard weapons, including advanced US missiles.

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However, their deployment will take time, and Ukraine will need consistent Western support to transition to new stocks and systems as stockpiles of Soviet-era weapons and ammunition dwindle. Continue reading

“We cannot afford to slack off and we must not slack off. There is too much at stake,” Austin said at the start of the meeting in Brussels. “Ukraine is facing a pivotal moment on the battlefield… Russia is using its long-range fire to attempt to overwhelm Ukrainian positions.”

The White House on Wednesday announced new weapons worth around $1 billion for Ukraine, including coastal defense systems and ammunition for artillery and advanced missile systems.

Germany will deliver three MARS II multiple rocket launchers to Ukraine, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said, adding that training of Ukrainian troops will begin in the coming weeks.

Before the meeting began, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the allies would continue to supply Ukraine with heavy weapons and long-range systems and he expected them to agree a new aid package for Kyiv at a NATO summit later this month.

‚ÄúSometimes these efforts take time. That’s exactly why it’s important to have a meeting like today … to meet with the Ukrainian representatives, to identify the challenges and the issues they want to address with us,” Stoltenberg said.

‘GRINDING’ OPERATION

The battle for Sievierodonetsk – a town of little more than 100,000 people before the war – is now Ukraine’s biggest battle as the conflict has turned into a grueling war of attrition.

US Chief of Staff General Mark Milley told reporters that about three-quarters of Sievarodonetsk is under Russian control.

It wasn’t inevitable that Russia would take over the eastern Donbass region, but it was clear that the numbers favored Russia in terms of artillery, even though Moscow had lost 20 to 30 percent of its armored force, Milley said at a press conference after the meeting.

The United States has pledged some $5.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s February 24 invasion, including artillery systems like howitzers and long-range weapons like the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).

“Russia has not given up the fight, despite its rather anemic progress… What we have is this grueling, slow, incremental Russian operation,” said a senior US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“So the question is what Ukrainians need to continue the success they have already seen in slowing down and thwarting this Russian goal, and that will be a key focus for defense ministers,” the official said.

Russia launched a so-called “special operation” in Ukraine in February, saying it was necessary to rid the country of dangerous nationalists and weaken Ukraine’s military capabilities – goals the West denounced as baseless subterfuges.

The Biden administration said it had received assurances from Kyiv that those long-range weapons would not be used to attack Russian territory amid fears of an escalation in the conflict.

Kyiv said it was losing 100 to 200 soldiers every day and hundreds more were wounded. In a late-night address, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the struggle over Donbas’ industrial heartland, which has been partially occupied by Moscow’s proxies since 2014, as one of the most brutal in European history.

Milley said those numbers are in line with US estimates of Ukrainian casualties, but the casualties could be sustained as the invasion of Russia poses an existential threat.

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Reporting by Idrees Ali, Sabine Siebold and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Edited by Lisa Shumaker, Chizu Nomiyama and Alex Richardson

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