KYIV — It’s all about the weapons — and we’ll do everything to get them to Kyiv.
That was the message from Nordic and Baltic ministers who arrived in the snow-covered Ukrainian capital on Monday morning.
The group — which includes foreign ministers from Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden — represents the largest high-level delegation to visit Kyiv since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February.
The ministers who spoke with POLITICO in Ukraine underscored that while immediate assistance to help keep key infrastructure running amid Russian attacks is needed, defense assistance remains vital.
There is a “need to change the paradigm of Western support,” said Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu.
Sitting in a small train compartment on Sunday night, the minister said that arms assistance to Ukraine can no longer be a “gradual” response to Russia’s escalatory steps — and more weapons should be provided “without any caveats.”
The Estonian minister called for a two-pronged approach: giving Ukraine a “shield” and a “sword.”
The shield, he said, “means all the types of air defense systems” while the sword entails “long-range missiles, so that they could reach also to these places from where the missiles which are intended to destroy their civic infrastructure are launched.”
In Kyiv, ministers emphasized the importance of more defense assistance.
Ukraine’s partners “have to take into account the need to provide Ukraine with air defense systems so that we can prevent the Russians from hitting the new equipment,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström in between meetings with Ukrainian officials Monday, noting that his country will provide air defense systems as part of a winter assistance package.
Others echoed the view that military aid should remain at the top of Western partners’ agenda.
“Even though there are very pressing needs,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said, “from my side I think that I will be advocating that we cannot forget that the main task is that we need to help Ukraine win the war.”
The Lithuanian minister, who is pushing for Western governments to provide Ukrainian forces with more tanks, said that “Russia is able to create problems when it’s under sanctions” and “the only way to stop it is to let Ukraine win.”
In the capital city, this message was echoed by Ukrainian officials.
“I would say that the most urgent thing is something that can save our people and help us survive the winter,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna said in an interview Monday.
“First and foremost is the air defense systems and missiles to these systems,” she said, “as much as possible.”
The European politicians traveled to Ukraine a day before a NATO ministers’ gathering in Bucharest in a symbolic gesture of support for Ukraine as it continues to battle Russian forces and as civilians grapple with the impact of missile strikes on critical infrastructure in freezing winter temperatures.
“It’s very tragic to see buildings and facilities being destroyed,” said Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, describing his impression of the city on Monday morning.
The Nordic and Baltic ministers’ first stop in Kyiv was the site of damaged energy infrastructure and a discussion with the chief of energy company Ukrenergo about continued operating challenges.
“People have been witnessing and suffering during these bombings, electricity cuts, water cuts,” Finland’s Haavisto said, adding: “I think you can see all around that this is aggression against the civilians.”
European governments are now looking at ways to help address Ukraine’s pressing needs.
“We arrive here in the middle of the winter, it’s easy to see that this is a hard time for a country where you have been, you know, subject to so much terrorizing bomb attacks from Russia,” said Sweden’s Billström.
Europe can do “a lot of things” to help, he said, pointing to a need for more equipment and rebuilding the energy grid system.
At the same time, Russia’s targeting of civilian infrastructure is also raising the possibility of another refugee wave. “I think there’s a lot of worry about this,” said Lithuania’s Landsbergis.
Speaking on the train ride to Kyiv, the Lithuanian minister said that “when the first wave of refugees arrived in Europe earlier this year, a lot of problems were solved by non-governmental organizations that were supported by government — and by people themselves.”
Now, however, the “situation is a little bit different,” the minister acknowledged.
“Governments will have to step in more,” he added, “and I think that there are things the European Union — all of us together — could do more” to help civilians who may be seeking “to relocate to safer areas within Ukraine.”