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Austin Hosts First In-Person Ukraine Defense Contact Group of 2024


US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov attend a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the American military's Ramstein Air Base, Germany, March 19, 2024.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov attend a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the American military's Ramstein Air Base, Germany, March 19, 2024.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday that “Russia has paid a staggering cost” for President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, as a U.S.-led group of more than 50 nations met in Germany to coordinate their efforts to support Ukraine.

“Ukraine's troops face harsh conditions and hard fighting, and Ukraine's civilians endure a constant barrage of Russian missiles and Iranian drones,” Austin said as he opened the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG) talks. “But Ukraine won't back down, and neither will the United States. So our message today is clear: The United States will not let Ukraine fail. This coalition will not let Ukraine fail. And the free world will not let Ukraine fail."

Austin highlighted new aid packages from the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Denmark and Sweden, calling them "investments in Ukraine's just battle against Russian aggression" as well as global security.

"Ukraine's survival is on the line, and all of our security is on the line,” Austin said.

While Ukrainian forces have continued to fight back against Russian forces in the east and inflicted “considerable damage” to Russian forces in the Black Sea, Russia — with the help of North Korea and Iran — has drastically ramped up its defense production capacity, forcing Ukraine to retreat from some battles due to ammunition shortages, according to a senior defense official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity ahead of the UDCG.

“Ukraine is heavily outgunned on the battlefield. We've received reports of Ukrainian troops rationing or even running out of ammunition on the front lines,” said the official.

The U.S. has contributed about $44 billion in security assistance for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, with allies and partners also committing more than $44 billion in that time frame.

But the U.S. military has run out of congressionally approved funds for replenishing its weapons stockpiles sent to Ukraine, and leadership in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has so far refused to bring new aid for Ukraine up for a vote.

Last week, the United States announced its first new round of military aid for Ukraine since late December, in what defense officials have called an “ad hoc” package made possible through U.S. Army procurement savings.

The military assistance package is valued at up to $300 million and will provide Ukraine with immediate air defense, artillery and anti-tank capabilities, along with more ammunition for HIMARS and 155-mm artillery rounds. But officials say it is unclear if there will be future procurement savings to produce another extraordinary package of aid.

“This is not a sustainable solution for Ukraine. We urgently need congressional approval of a national security supplemental,” the senior defense official said.

“There isn't a way that our allies can really combine forces to make up for the lack of U.S. support,” the official added.

The emphasis on ammunition and air defense will likely be as strong as ever during this UDCG meeting.

“They need interceptors for a whole variety of their air defense systems, and over time, they keep running out as they try to defend against these wave upon wave of attacks that we're seeing from Russia,” the senior official said.

Coalition leadership group

To better organize how the UDCG provides Kyiv with military weapons and equipment, the group’s members have formed capability coalitions to identify ways to increase Kyiv’s efficiency and cut costs.

Austin convened a meeting of the leads and co-leads of all the capability coalitions for the first time Tuesday, during a special coalition leadership group session.

Air Force capability is co-led by the United States, Denmark and the Netherlands. The armor capability is co-led by Poland and Italy. The artillery capability is co-led by France and the United States. De-mining is co-led by Lithuania and Iceland. Drone capability is co-led by Latvia and the United Kingdom. Information technology is co-led by Estonia and Luxembourg. Integrated air and missile defense capabilities are co-led by Germany and France, and maritime security is co-led by the United Kingdom and Norway.

Critics like Sean McFate, a professor at Syracuse University and author of “The New Rules of War,” told VOA the international community is putting its money into expensive military aid that falls short in modern warfare.

“It's not conventional warfare that beat back Russia's blitz. It was Ukrainian guerrilla warfare,” he said. “Ukraine was winning the unconventional fight. But then in fall of 2022, they decided to go conventional against Russia, which was strategically silly.”

McFate added that giving Ukraine more conventional war weapons was, in his view, “the strategic definition of insanity.”

Instead, he said Ukraine and its allies needed to think about unconventional ways where they can leverage their power to defeat Russia, such as guerilla operations and more direct actions deep inside Russia to build upon the Russian population’s unfavorable opinions of the war.

“Use your conventional forces to hold the line, but don't invest them to create an offensive which requires a lot more resources,” McFate told VOA.

“M1A1 Abram tanks and F-16 fighter jets … will win tactical victories on the battlefield, but we all know that you can win every battle, yet lose the war, because wars are won on the strategic level, not at the tactical level of warfare,” he said.