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Why NATO is Giving Ukraine Air Defense Systems, Not Fighter Jets

7 minute read

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov had a not-so-subtle message for Western defense chiefs meeting Tuesday at North American Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels. After he arrived through the front doors, he plucked a tan handkerchief from his breast pocket, unfolded it, and held it up to show a small group of reporters the images printed on it: fighter jets.

The gesture, which took place as the U.S. and European military leaders convened here to discuss the Ukraine conflict, was the latest appeal from Kyiv to allies for modern fighter aircraft. So far, that request has gone unfulfilled.

While Ukraine seeks air power, NATO’s focus is on the ground. The allies are pouring in artillery, armor and air defense systems to help Ukrainian forces fend off a major new Russian attack in the eastern part of the country aimed at breaking the current stalemate. If Kyiv can blunt Russian forces’ push this spring, then it would be primed to launch a counteroffensive in the summer to reclaim territory it previously lost.

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The Biden Administration is convinced that what happens in the next six months will prove decisive in who ultimately wins this nearly year-old war. The message has been delivered to Kyiv that it needs to take advantage of this short window of time because when it closes the White House expects a bigger political challenge to push aid packages through the Republican-led House and a bigger logistical challenge as allies confront depleting weapons stockpiles.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of 54 nations at NATO headquarters to strategize. Seated at the head of a table with dozens of nations arranged around him, he implored them to build upon the recent pledges of new tanks, heavy weaponry, and training for Ukraine. “We have committed nearly $50 billion in lethal assistance to Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion last February 24 and our coordination is making a real difference,” he said, sitting alongside Reznikov. “Today’s meeting comes at a critical time. The Kremlin is still betting they can wait us out.”

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Russia is pre-positioning troops and attack aircraft along Ukraine’s eastern borders in what Western officials believe are preparations for a broad offensive targeting Kharkhiv region in the northeast and Zaporizhzhya in the southeast. A senior U.S. administration official described “a lot of action on the border, a lot of preparations there” with Russian air forces moving helicopter gunships and fighter jets into place.

The need for air defense systems has emerged as a top priority for Ukraine at the meetings here. The UN human rights office said Monday that 7,199 civilians had been killed and 11,756 wounded since Russia’s initial invasion on Feb. 24, 2022. With many of the casualties coming from airstrikes, an urgent goal is to shore up defenses around cities and population centers so Ukraine can better defend against future barrages.

After the meeting with Ukraine and other European partners, Austin said he didn’t know if Moscow was preparing to launch a bombing campaign in the coming weeks, but he did acknowledge the amassed Russian combat power. “We do know that Russia has a substantial number of aircraft in its inventory and a lot of capability,” he told reporters. “That’s why we’ve emphasized that we need to do everything that we can to get Ukraine as much air defense capability as we possibly can.”

On Tuesday, Italy and France committed to providing SAMP/T anti-aircraft systems. The U.S. and allies have already pledged NASAMS, or National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, that can identify, engage, and destroy aircraft, helicopters, cruise missiles, and drones. This is in addition to the high-end Patriot air defense battery that the U.S. has pledged. About 100 Ukrainians are currently at Fort Sill in Oklahoma undergoing intensive training on how to operate it.

Timing is becoming increasingly important. As the fighting intensifies in eastern Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appealed to alliance members Tuesday to ship its promised supplies of artillery, combat vehicles, and ammunition so they arrive on time. “This has become a grinding war of attrition, and therefore it’s also a battle of logistics,” he said. “When it comes to artillery, we need ammunition, we need spare parts, we need maintenance, we need all the logistics to ensure that we are able to sustain these weapons systems.”

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The Biden Administration anticipates that tanks, armored vehicles and other heavy weapons—and the timing of deliveries—could prove decisive. Germany and several other European countries have agreed to supply Leopard 2 battle tanks. Germany started training on the Leopard 2 with plans to push them to the frontlines by the end of March.

Russia is already engaged in one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of the war in Bakhmut. Russia’s months-long offensive on eastern Ukraine, parts of which Moscow claimed to annex in September, reflects Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-held aim of capturing Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas—an ambitious goal that Russian troops have been tasked with achieving by March, according to Ukrainian officials.

But Russian forces have so far been unable to advance beyond Bakhmut’s outskirts, nor have they been able to disrupt the crucial ground lines being used to supply Ukrainian forces in the city. The long, drawn-out battle in Bakhmut and elsewhere has taken a major toll on Russia’s land forces. Moscow may have lost up to half of all its operational tank fleet since the beginning of the war, according to Oryx, an open source intelligence website. Based on visual evidence of military equipment losses, the monitoring group said it counted 1,000 Russian tank losses in the war while another 544 had been captured by Ukraine, 79 damaged, and 65 abandoned.

With Russia’s land forces hobbled, along with signs that its air forces will become more active, Ukraine is seeking new fighter jets to fight back. Ukraine currently relies on its Soviet-era fighter jets, which were made before Kyiv declared independence from the Soviet Union over 30 years ago. The planes have been overpowered by Russia’s modern jets that can fire missiles from a long range without entering Ukrainian airspace.

Ukraine’s appeals include requests for different fighter jets from several countries: F-16s and F-35s from the U.S., Eurofighters, Tornados, French Rafales, and Swedish Gripen jets. President Joe Biden was firm that Washington will not provide Kyiv with F-16s last month after Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister called for allied Western nations to form a “fighter jet coalition.” Answering reporters’ questions Jan. 31 about the matter, Biden flatly replied: “No.”

Austin said Tuesday the administration policy had not changed. “In terms of whether or not we’re going to provide the F-16, I don’t have any announcements to make. And I don’t have anything to add to what our president said earlier.”

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Write to W.J. Hennigan/Brussels at william.hennigan@time.com