June 13, 2024

BRUSSELS — For the first time, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joined a meeting of more than 50 defense leaders from around the world Wednesday to make a personal pitch for military aid, in the face of lagging political support in the U.S. and new pressure on allies to send weapons to bolster Israel’s war with Hamas.

His presence underscored growing concerns about cracks in what has been staunch international backing for Kyiv in its war against Russia’s invasion, and worries that Ukrainian forces haven’t made measurable progress in the counteroffensive as winter closes in.

Asked about concerns that Ukraine could get less military support because of the war in Israel, Zelenskyy said there is a “very understandable volume” that the U.S. and Europe can provide. Zelenskyy said he has asked that question himself, and added he thinks nobody really knows but he is still assuming U.S. and European support.

As for the Israel complication, “of course, everybody’s afraid, and I think also Russia’s counting on it, on dividing support,” Zelenskyy said in remarks at a press conference with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said both allies will be supported.

“We can do both and we will do both,” Austin said.

The meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, hosted by the U.S., comes as Ukraine is desperately seeking more weapons to help its troops regain ground from Russian forces before the muddy weather sets in. But political chaos in Congress has stalled approval of new Ukraine funding, and there has been growing opposition among some lawmakers to any increase in spending.

Speaking as he entered NATO headquarters, Zelenskyy noted the Israel war, and said Ukrainians understand such tragedy. But he was also quick to detail Ukraine’s ongoing need for air defense systems and long-range missiles “to push Russia out of our land.”

“Next Monday, we will mark the 600th day of our resistance to Russia’s full scale aggression against our people, against Ukraine. And today, no one can say for sure how many more days we will have to defend our independence and to defend our identity,” Zelenskyy told the gathering at the opening of the meeting. “But we can already say several things which I think are important. First, Putin will not achieve Ukraine. Second, Russia cannot afford a new arms race. And third, democracy can win this battle.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Austin told reporters traveling with him to Brussels that support for Ukraine continues unabated. He said a number of allies will announce they are sending additional weapons and other support to Kyiv. A key demand has been more air defense systems and munitions.

“The energy, in my view, is still there,” said Austin. “And I will reassure them that we remain committed to this.”

Austin also announced that the U.S. will take on a new leadership role in the broader effort to build Ukraine’s air force, specifically with F-16 fighter jets. He said the U.S. will co-lead a coalition along with Denmark and Netherlands, and will help organize donation of the aircraft, plans to sustain and maintain them and pilot training. That training has already started in the U.S. Austin said the training will likely take months and it may not be until next spring that Ukraine is operating the F-16s.

He asserted that Ukraine is making steady progress in the war. And he said allies during this meeting would focus not only on meeting Kyiv’s immediate needs but also on setting up plans to coordinate investments in Ukraine’s future force.

This was also the first Ukraine contact group meeting for U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. CQ Brown, who said that additional commitments of weapons and conversations with allies convinced him “we’re putting Ukraine in a good spot” ahead of the winter fight.

The contact group is the main forum for raising contributions of weapons, equipment and training for Kyiv’s war effort. It meets about once a month, in person and virtually, and this is the 16th gathering.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, center, arrives for a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (Virginia Mayo/AP)Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, center, arrives for a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (Virginia Mayo/AP)

Zelenskyy, who was greeted with applause as he entered the building, went immediately into a private session with Austin and U.S. Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Speaking to reporters as he came in, Zelenskyy reiterated his country’s need for long-range missiles and ammunition.

“It’s very important that there are priorities. There are air defense systems. These are not just basic words. These are very concrete things and we need them,” Zelenskyy said.

Following that meeting, the 31 allies and Ukraine will take part in the first NATO-Ukraine Council at this level. The forum was formally established in July as part of efforts to bring Kyiv closer to the alliance. It allows NATO and Kyiv to discuss issues of common interest and concern.

The new package of U.S. aid includes AIM-9M missiles that Austin said will be used with a new surface-to-air missile defense system that the U.S. will soon deliver to Ukraine. In addition, the U.S. will provide counter-drone systems, munitions for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), artillery, electronic warfare equipment, demolition munitions, anti-armor systems and more than 16 million rounds of small arms ammunition.

The weapons are provided under presidential drawdown authority, so will be taken from Pentagon stocks and delivered quickly to the battlefield.

Associated Press writer Raf Casert contributed to this report.

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