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Training Ukrainians takes priority as West’s stockpiles dwindle

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 donor countries’ stockpiles run low. 

The issue was top of mind 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 for supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia. 

The meeting comes as Kyiv pushes ahead with a challenging counteroffensive, hoping to claw back some Russian-held territory before the winter freeze. Yet while Moscow’s brutal assault initially garnered close attention in the West and an outpouring of support — not to mention weapons — governments are now facing growing economic pressures at home. 

The Ramstein gathering — the fifth in a series of defense support discussions — was held in the shadow of a looming energy crisis across Europe, with the European Union weighing unprecedented measures to curb stratospheric prices. Officials are also fretting that economic woes may undermine public support for tough measures against Russia. 

Meanwhile, some governments say they have simply given nearly all they can.

“The war is at another key moment,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said as he opened Thursday’s meeting, pointing to Ukraine’s counteroffensive. “The face of the war is changing,” he said, “and so is the mission of this contact group.”

Officials participating in the group confirmed that while weapons transfers are still a major goal, the challenges — and priorities — are expanding as the war becomes a long-term conflict.

“These last 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, this will change — because we have limited resources, limited stock.” 

Now, Gram said, “the discussions are turning more to how can we cooperate in getting new equipment and supplies for Ukraine, in close cooperation with the industry.” And with Ukraine taking heavy losses, he added, new soldiers must be trained and taught how “to maintain and repair donated material.”

‘Urgent Requirements’

Despite an evolving focus, pressing combat realities — and the needed weapons — were still right in front of officials at Ramstein, literally.

As ministers arrived for the gathering, they each found a paper titled “Ukraine’s Urgent Requirements” on their table. The top priority, according to the paper, 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 did use the gathering to unveil a new batch of weapons that would be sent to Ukraine, with Austin confirming the U.S. had just committed another $675 million in equipment like rocket launchers, ammunition, humvees and anti-tank systems. 

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also made an unscheduled visit to Ukraine, where he revealed a $2 billion pledge in long-term military financing to Ukraine and 18 of its neighbors. 

But much of the Ramstein meeting revealed the evolving mindset among allies. In his comments on Thursday, Austin indicated that training and arms production will be among the group’s future priorities. 

“We’re working together to arm and to train Ukraine on the current fight. Yet we’re also working together to help Ukraine … develop capable, sustainable forces to defend itself and deter aggression over the long term,” Austin said. 

He said allies are planning to meet “in the next few weeks” to discuss how the defense industry “can best equip Ukraine’s future forces with the capabilities that they need.”

Several defense ministers echoed the need to look at training and industrial capabilities.  

Portuguese Defense Minister Helena Carreiras said the U.S.-led group is “ready to consider the long-term consequences of the conflict” even as it remains focused on “meeting any short-term needs in the face of the ongoing offensive on the ground.”

Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder, meanwhile, said in a note that “the orientation of the Ramstein group is bound to evolve over time according to the evolution of the needs expressed by Ukraine.” 

Dedonder pointed to the European Union’s move last week toward the creation of an EU military training mission for Ukraine as “an example of the Ramstein Group’s shift towards greater coherence coordinated for maximum efficiency.”

Domestic politics

Also on officials’ minds are domestic political pressures, which are deepening across many western capitals. 

In a nod to these worries, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote in an opinion piece ahead of the meeting that “our unity and solidarity will be seriously tested, as families and businesses feel the crunch of soaring energy prices and costs of living caused by Russia’s brutal invasion.” 

But, the NATO chief argued, “we must stay the course and stand up to tyranny — for Ukraine’s sake and for ours.” 

And while Austin praised a “unity of purpose” around the table, behind the scenes in Ramstein, Ukraine’s partners continued to hold somewhat diverging perspectives 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 still pushing their western European partners to go further.

Over the past seven months “eastern countries are saying that we have to support Ukraine more,” Bļodniece said. “And of course, those countries, [the] biggest Western countries who have this heavy weapons systems and longer distance artillery and other things, they have to do it.”

“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 argue there’s considerable common ground. 

“We all agree,” Portugal’s Defense Minister Carreiras said, “that Ukraine needs our support.”

Ukrainian officials have gone to great lengths to express gratitude even as they lobby for more weapons. 

“We are really satisfied with [the] contact group’s work,” said one senior Ukrainian official earlier this week. 

“In war, there are never enough weapons, resources,” said Oleksandr Zavitnevych, chairman of the Ukrainian parliament’s Committee on National Security, Defense and Intelligence. 

Speaking of the counteroffensive, Zavitnevych said Kyiv does need more training and soldiers, but also more weapons and more ammunition. 

Ukraine’s partners, he told POLITICO, “surely understand we are now talking about how to protect the whole democratic world.” 

And while some Ukrainian officials acknowledge the western alliance features differing perspectives, they also insist these divisions do not impact the big picture — for now.

“We need to look at it as part of the democratic process and we need to be realistic about what countries can and cannot do,” said Yuriy Sak, an advisor to Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov. 

Divisions are “part of the process,” he said, but they will not impact the support for Ukraine on a “serious level.”

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