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Ukraine’s swift battlefield advances are forcing European governments to once again confront an uncomfortable question: Will they significantly boost weapons deliveries?
It’s a touchy subject in many European capitals, where the energy crisis and cost-of-living woes have dominated public attention over the past weeks, prompting warnings of war fatigue. But Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia in recent days has changed the narrative — at least for the moment — giving a new opening to those wanting European governments to step up their arms deliveries.
First among them is the Ukrainian government itself.
“We are turning the tide and need more heavy weapons and ammunition from our allies to build upon the momentum, save more people, and liberate more of Ukraine’s territories faster,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told POLITICO in a statement on Monday.
“The more military support we receive now, the faster this war will end,” he added. “This is why Ukraine calls on its partners to focus on the schedule: prompt supplies of what the Ukrainian army needs will bring victory and peace closer.”
It was a sentiment echoed among those who found their pleas for more immediate European military assistance increasingly falling on deaf ears as Kyiv’s partners turned attention to training Ukrainian soldiers and ramping up arms production.
The trend will, of course, not change overnight. The Ukrainian surge does not necessarily indicate a permanent shift in the war. And, logistically speaking, many European governments are low on expendable supplies. Other countries, including France and Germany, also seem reluctant to significantly boost donations, even if military experts say it’s possible.
Yet that hasn’t stopped advocates for more support from leaping at the chance to resurrect their pitch.
“Ukrainian armed forces have made a remarkably rapid advance over the weekend,” Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said in an email.
“With our steadfast military support, they can make the difference on the battlefield,” she added. “It encourages me to step up the game even more.”
‘A re-energizing ray of light’
Kuleba laid out Kyiv’s request as its forces pushed northeast through the Russian line over the weekend, taking back key supply hubs in the Donbas region. It was a series of victories, Kuleba argued, that show the impact of Western donations.
“Ukraine’s advances in the east and south prove that all the investments that our Western partners have made in our defense capabilities do yield astonishing results,” he said.
“There should be no doubt now,” Kuleba added, “that Ukraine can win and Russia can be defeated on the battlefield.”
The Netherlands’ Ollongren argued there is a need to “accelerate cooperation and maximize concrete deliveries, ammunition, training and maintenance in particular.”
The United States is ultimately the most important provider of military assistance to Ukraine. It has continued to approve more weapons shipments, announcing last week a fresh $675 million in arms, as well as a broader $2.2 billion military financing package for Kyiv and 18 regional partners.
Still, the Ukrainian military’s recent progress has raised hopes that Kyiv’s performance will boost efforts to convince European capitals to do more.
“I am certain,” said one senior diplomat from an eastern NATO country, “that the recent Ukrainian successes will irreversibly consolidate the determination of those who support Ukraine.”
“There is a re-energizing ray of light,” the diplomat said, “that normally should translate into more solidarity and support for Ukraine.”
Germany and France stay the course
Early reactions in Berlin and Paris have been warier, however.
Even as the Ukrainian counteroffensive was underway late last week, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht ruled out an increase of weapons supplies to Kyiv.
“Our values, democracy, freedom and security are being defended in Ukraine,” she told POLITICO in an interview.
But, Lambrecht stressed, Germany’s stocks are depleted — a result of years of underinvestment. Berlin must hold back weapons to ensure its own defense capabilities until it can rebuild its forces via a recent €100 billion investment fund.
“I would very much like to be able to give significantly more to Ukraine,” Lambrecht said. “If the Bundeswehr had not been so cut up in the years before, that would have been possible. But this is now the consequence of this irresponsible saving.”
Lambrecht’s arguments haven’t stopped German Chancellor Olaf Scholz from facing renewed pressure to step up his military assistance to Ukraine. International allies, political opponents and even some within his own government are all leaning on him to act.
“Everyone in the government knows that even more would be possible,” Omid Nouripour, the German Greens’ co-leader, told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper. The Greens are part of a three-party coalition government with Scholz’s Social Democrats and the liberal Free Democratic Party.
Nouripour specifically called on Scholz to send Germany’s own modern tanks to Ukraine — something it has avoided, opting instead to give NATO allies replacement tanks if they donate Soviet-era models to Ukraine.
“My expectations are even higher for Germany,” U.S. Ambassador to Germany Amy Gutmann told German public broadcaster ZDF on Sunday evening, without going into details.
Scholz on Monday defended his government’s approach, arguing Berlin’s arms shipments have directly aided the counteroffensive.
“The weapons that we have delivered,” he said at a press conference in Berlin, “are actually contributing to the fact that it is now possible in the eastern battle to change the outcome in the way that we are currently seeing.”
The pressure felt in Germany has thus far spared French President Emmanuel Macron, though. Public debate has focused elsewhere despite international rankings showing France lagging behind the U.K., Germany, Poland, Estonia and Denmark on military support for Ukraine.
In a briefing with reporters on Monday, Macron said he was satisfied with the feedback he had obtained from the Ukrainians on arms deliveries and made the case that France should not descend into a battle of rankings with other countries.
He argued that France should focus on avoiding escalation, echoing a recent speech in which Macron encouraged France to project itself as “a balancing power” and to “not align itself with more hawkish [countries], which would risk extending the conflict and closing lines of communications.”
However, in a phone call on Saturday, Macron and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy discussed “Ukrainian needs that France could answer,” according to a French readout. No new deliveries have yet been announced.
Some experts say France could do more to support Ukraine at a moment that could be crucial in the conflict.
“We have to accelerate weapons deliveries, more tanks, more air defense systems — even if it means letting our stocks drop very low,” said Nicolas Tenzer, an expert on French-Russian relations at Sciences Po.
According to Tenzer, France’s weapons stocks have suffered in recent years due to budget cuts. But the country could still donate tanks and fighter jets that could be game-changing “if the allied limitation on such weapons was lifted.”
NATO sends subtle signals
As Ukraine’s counteroffensive got underway last week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was playing his own role in leaning on allies.
Speaking alongside U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday, Stoltenberg said he had two messages for NATO members.
The first: “We welcome the unprecedented support, we are calling for even more support, and we urge them to dig deeper into the inventories.” The second, he added, “is of course to produce more.”
The secretary-general’s remarks were interpreted in Berlin as a quiet critique.
Stoltenberg’s comments “are a clear message to Lambrecht and Scholz,” said German center-right lawmaker Roderich Kiesewetter, “that their argument of having to hold back weapons for Germany’s defense capabilities or its obligations within NATO is not valid.”
On NATO’s eastern flank, meanwhile, allies cautioned that Ukraine’s partners cannot get complacent.
“It is good to see that Ukraine is doing well, but we cannot forget that a very huge territory is still occupied and the winter is coming,” Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur said in a text message.
“We have to help Ukraine,” he said, “for as much as needed and for as long as needed.”