WASHINGTON — Days after Russia renewed missile strikes on civilian infrastructure in Kyiv, Western leaders are boosting support to Ukraine’s air defenses — something for which the beleaguered nation has begged since the war’s early days.
The Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which gathers defense officials from more than 50 nations, focused its latest meeting in Brussels on Wednesday on protecting Ukraine’s airspace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told the press after the meeting.
“We focused on air defense, on cannon artillery, rocket artillery, maneuver tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers,” he said. “These systems and associated ammunition are critical for Ukraine to continue the fight. They are employing these weapons extremely well.”
Russia on Monday launched a barrage of missiles on cities across Ukraine, including the first bombardment of Kyiv in months. Afterward, the Kremlin admitted the weapons struck their intended targets, which Milley on Wednesday said included “civilian infrastructure with the purpose of harming civilians.”
“They have targeted the elderly, the women and the children of Ukraine,” Milley said. “Indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on civilian targets is a war crime.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin added Russia’s strikes reemphasized the high stakes of the war for the free world.
“In the past few days, Putin has given us all another grim preview of a future in which the appetites of aggressive autocrats outweigh the rights of peaceful states,” he said. “We would all be less secure.”
Ukraine has been pleading with the US and other NATO nations to help defend its airspace almost since the initial invasion by Russia Feb. 24, first calling for a no-fly zone over the country and later for donations of fighter jets and Patriot missile-defense systems.
The US has rejected all three requests, but in July pledged eight National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), which are used to protect the White House. The first two will arrive later this year, though it could take up to two years to deliver the rest, US defense officials have said.
Austin dodged a question Wednesday about when such systems would arrive, noting “they will be provided as fast as we can physically get them there.”
Some legislators, such as Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), have called on the Pentagon to send Patriot batteries, which defense officials are hesitant to pledge because of their limited supply.
“The US and allies need to continue supporting Ukraine as it defends itself from these despicable acts,” Slotkin said Monday on Twitter. “We’ve provided defensive radar and committed to deliver NASAMS to defend against airstrikes, but we need to expedite the shipments and get them up and running as fast as possible.”
Slotkin, herself a former senior Pentagon official, also called for the US to send C-RAMs – chain-gun batteries that fire at incoming munitions. The American military uses those weapons to shield its bases in the Middle East from rocket, artillery and mortar fire.
Though Austin did not mention the possibility of sending Patriot or C-RAM batteries, he noted Germany is the latest nation to send Ukraine significant air-defense capabilities. The country recently delivered the first of four IRIS-T truck-mounted missile defense systems — one of the world’s most advanced air-defense systems, which Germany recently developed to protect itself from Russian cruise missiles.
Though some of the smaller nations in the group, which has met monthly since June, are unable to send such powerful weaponry, Austin called on them to send medical supplies and cold-weather gear ahead of the brutal Ukrainian winter.
“Every contribution counts,” Austin said. “The members of this contact group stand united in our support for Ukraine self-defense, through any season.”