As Ukraine urged its citizens to flee a hotly contested city in the east, the country’s allies worked on Tuesday to come up with ways to provide Kyiv with the basic supplies it will need for the larger battles looming ahead — especially artillery shells.
The allies, meeting in Brussels, discussed ways to ramp up production as stockpiles dwindle, but warned that it is a problem not easily solved.
“The current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production,” Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said in advance of the meeting. “This puts our defense industries under strain.”
The American defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, speaking to reporters in Brussels after a meeting of the 54-nation Ukraine Defense Contact Group, said it was also critical to train Ukrainian soldiers to use the equipment allies have already agreed to provide, as fighting intensifies. Russia is seen as ramping up a major new offensive in eastern Ukraine, and Mr. Austin said the United States expects Ukraine to conduct a new counteroffensive in the spring.
“That’s just weeks away — so we have a lot to get done,” Mr. Austin said.
He said the military officials meeting in Brussels had decided to focus on training the Ukrainians to fight a coordinated infantry campaign that used less artillery fire, easing the strain on supplies. As it stands now, Ukrainian and Russian troops are firing thousands of howitzer rounds at each other every day, along a front line more than 600 miles long, U.S. officials say.
Whatever plans Ukraine’s allies arrive at by the end of meetings that conclude on Wednesday, it appeared clear that they would be too late to help the city of Bakhmut, where Russian forces appeared close to their first significant victory in months after a drawn-out battle that has cost untold lives on both sides.
The State of the War
On Tuesday, the Ukrainian authorities stepped up efforts to persuade the few thousand remaining civilians to leave Bakhmut, adding to signs that Kyiv may be preparing to retreat from a city it has defended fiercely for months. The city, which had a prewar population of around 70,000, has steadily been emptying as the fighting has intensified. Fewer than 5,000 residents are still there, about 140 of them children, local officials estimate.
Now Ukraine wants them to leave, too.
A spokesman for the armed forces, Col. Serhiy Cherevaty, said on Ukrainian television that soldiers need to keep their focus on building defensive lines. But he also said that part of the reason for the order a day earlier barring civilians, including aid workers, from entering the city was to keep military operations secret.
As a prize, Bakhmut offers little in the way of strategic value for either Moscow or Kyiv. Its significance comes more from the amount of blood spilled to claim it.
“Even if Bakhmut were to fall, it would not have a strategic impact on the overall war,” said the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby. “I would go so far as to say it won’t even have necessarily a strategic impact on the fighting in that part of the country.”
In Brussels, Western officials deflected questions about whether Ukraine would win its campaign to secure still more powerful weapons to use against its Russian enemy.
Already, allies have given all manner of different Western weapon systems to Kyiv’s war effort, most recently pledging to supply it with battle tanks. Mr. Austin said the priority now was to make sure Ukrainian troops were trained on how to use these weapons effectively, describing it as “a monumental task” that is “really the focus of our conversation today.”
Having won a commitment of tanks and armored fighting vehicles in January, Ukrainian officials quickly turned to the next item on their wish list: fighter planes. President Biden has said he is opposed to sending U.S.-made F-16 jets to Ukraine, and other allies have also appeared reluctant. But Britain, Kyiv’s second-biggest arms supplier after the United States, said last week that it would start training Ukrainian pilots on Western jets.
Asked in Brussels on Tuesday whether fighter jets had been discussed, Mr. Austin, the American defense secretary, said, “I don’t have any announcement to make today.”
Mr. Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, also appeared to be treading carefully.
“The issue of aircraft is not the most urgent issue now,” he said. “But it is an ongoing discussion.”
Apart from planes, Ukrainian officials have said that they are in dire need of more ammunition for the Soviet-era T-72 tanks they already possess — which is not compatible with NATO weaponry — as well as artillery shells to work with Western-supplied heavy guns. Before the meeting, Mr. Stoltenberg said that the war “is consuming an enormous amount of munitions and depleting allied stockpiles,” and that allies would discuss how to expand production to support Ukraine and replenish their own arsenals.
Even as NATO countries try to ramp up manufacturing, waiting times to secure new large-caliber ammunition have grown from 12 months to 28 months, Mr. Stoltenberg said.
The Pentagon is already racing to increase production of artillery shells by 500 percent within two years, pushing conventional ammunition production to levels not seen since the Korean War.
The tanks that the United States and several other NATO allies have committed to supplying are expected to take months to arrive — and require still other types of ammunition.
In Brussels on Tuesday, NATO officials also discussed a reshaping of the alliance caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is nearing its first anniversary: an expansion to include two long-nonaligned countries, Finland and Sweden.
Mr. Stoltenberg raised the possibility that the applications of Sweden and Finland to join NATO might be considered separately, appearing to open the door to a split decision on membership.
The long-held thinking at NATO has been that the Nordic neighbors should join at the same time. His comments caused some immediate concern among member states because they appeared to lessen the alliance’s leverage to persuade Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to drop objections to Sweden’s bid to join.
Mr. Stoltenberg sought to allay those concerns.
“The main question is not whether Finland and Sweden are ratified together,” he told reporters before a meeting of NATO defense ministers. “The main question is that they are both ratified as full members as soon as possible.”