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Western officials are scouring for tanks and heavy weaponry to send to Ukraine as they grapple with a dawning reality: They may need to supply — and resupply — the country’s military for months and even years to come in its battle against Russian invaders.
In the short term, countries are earmarking equipment Ukraine can easily use. The Czech Republic, for instance, is reportedly sending Soviet-designed tanks already familiar to Ukrainian forces.
In the longer term, officials are fielding Ukraine’s fresh demands — and determining what allies are willing to provide. The U.K. is trying to enhance coordination among countries giving supplies, holding a donor conference last week with 35 participants. And the U.S. is seeking partners that can deliver long-range air defense systems, while reportedly accelerating its own production of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.
Meanwhile, in Germany, officials are tussling over whether to hand over 100 tanks, which would also require training for the Ukrainian forces.
“The conflict,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, has “entered a new and different phase with a more concentrated Russian offensive.” As a result, she added following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, there was support to “supply new and heavier equipment to Ukraine.”
Looming over everything, however, are supply crunch fears. Some countries are already warning that they are simply tapped out. And military specialists say production lines are difficult to pivot quickly.
And although the war may last long, Western and Ukrainian officials are also concerned that if they do not move quickly, Russia may be able to make significant gains on the battlefield, particularly in eastern Ukraine, despite early defeats.
“Two weeks ago, it was enough to say what will be given,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said after addressing the NATO ministers. “Today, it’s more important to know when it will be given — and this is something that allies have to sort out and to find appropriate solutions.”
Whatever decisions the West makes will be critical in shaping the war’s next phase. Russia has pulled back some forces from around Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and is now plotting a punishing offensive in the east likely to begin in a matter of weeks, according to Western officials.
Kuleba arrived Thursday morning with a straightforward request for NATO members.
“My agenda is very simple,” he said. “It only has three items on it. It’s weapons, weapons and weapons.”
Kuleba ticked off a few of the specific items Ukraine is seeking: Fighter jets, more missiles, armored vehicles and heavier air-defense systems.
Some of this equipment, like jets, has been ruled out by the U.S. as too escalatory. But other items, like tanks and more robust air-defense systems, are now on the agenda as the war enters its next chapter.
“It was a clear message from the meeting today that allies should do more and are ready to do more,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday, following the foreign ministers’ gathering. “They recognize the urgency.”
The NATO chief declined to offer specifics about that “more,” however, only saying it included “both Soviet-era systems but also modern equipment.”
So far, Western allies have focused on funneling light weapons to Ukraine, as well as other equipment like body armor and medical supplies. A week into March, a U.S. defense official told CNN that allies had sent Ukraine roughly 17,000 anti-tank missiles and 2,000 anti-aircraft missiles, a number that has certainly risen since then.
But the thinking is transforming as Russia shifts its military tactics.
Initially, Western officials assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin expected his forces to swiftly encircle Kyiv and other key cities in the hopes of toppling the Ukrainian government.
Having failed at that, officials say Putin is now shifting his battlegroups to Donbas, an eastern region in Ukraine where Russia had already been fomenting unrest for eight years, perhaps aiming to grind out an offensive that claims more territory there.
Russia’s mutating strategy has raised the prospect of a more conventional, long-term ground war involving heavy fighting into the foreseeable future. It’s a war Western allies weren’t exactly expecting, leaving them without a premeditated plan for arming Ukraine’s forces in such a scenario.
Ukraine’s “needs are obviously evolving,” said one Western official. “The appetite from allies to meet those needs is very high, but there’s plenty more work to do to make sure they’re getting what they need.”
In Washington, Defense Department Press Secretary John Kirby on Thursday said the U.S. was scrambling to source the equipment Ukraine wants.
“We’re working with allies and partners, literally every day, to see if they can provide some of these long-range air defense systems that we know the Ukrainians know how to use and are using very effectively because we don’t have them in our stocks,” he told TV network MSNBC.
Kirby also encouraged allies to send tanks, a subject that has moved to the center of debate in Europe.
In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz is holding up approval of a plan to send Ukraine “Marder” tanks, to the frustration of partners in his governing coalition, according to four people familiar with the situation.
The move would signal an important shift, marking the first time a Western ally delivered heavy weaponry that requires significant training for Ukrainians and a process for ensuring maintenance and munitions. The people said Scholz wants Western allies to find a common position on such tank deliveries before moving ahead.
The equivocation in Berlin has left Ukraine frustrated.
“It’s clear that Germany can do more given its reserves — reserves and capacity,” Kuleba vented on Thursday. “The issue that concerns me the most is the length of procedures and decision-making in Berlin. Because while Berlin has time, Kyiv doesn’t.”
While Germany may have reserves, not every country can say the same.
“In Estonia, we don’t have at the moment resources to provide anything in addition,” Estonian Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets told POLITICO on Thursday, even as she stressed the government will keep assessing what aid it can offer as the war progresses.
Like its Baltic neighbors, Estonia was an early and vocal advocate of sending Ukraine arms, donating €220 million from its own reserve of weapons, ammunition and protective equipment — “a relatively big amount for a country, taking into account our size,” Liimets said.
The challenge for Western allies is that they do not want to leave themselves empty-handed at a time when Russia is engaged in military aggression. That leaves them scrambling to find new supplies for Ukraine and get them there quickly.
“There is a massive supply issue,” said Nick Reynolds, a land warfare specialist at the Royal United Services Institute defense think tank in the U.K.
With anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, he said, “it will take time to transport them if we had the supplies, but the supplies are dwindling, particularly in terms of Western European countries [that] will need to keep some back for themselves.”
He added: “The impression I get is that ramping up production is basically not really happening, not within the timeframe we’re talking about anyway.”
That’s left Western allies in what Reynolds termed “an awkward position” — running short on their initial offerings of light weapons and needing time to integrate heavier equipment into the Ukrainian military.
Still, Kuleba expressed optimism Western countries were committed to overcoming these logistical and political hurdles.
This week’s NATO meeting, he said, featured “a growing understanding … that support to Ukraine should be stepped up.”
At this point, he added, “The discussion is not about the list of weapons, the discussion is about the timeline. When do we get them? And this is crucial.”
Quint Forgey contributed reporting.