The U.S. and dozens of allies pledged more weapons, ammunition and tanks for Ukraine as a Russian offensive gained momentum, but they stopped short of promising the fighter jets that Kyiv has avidly sought as the invasion nears the one-year mark.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in Brussels for two days of high-level talks with allies and NATO counterparts, told reporters that meetings on Tuesday did not result in approval of the fighter jets. The Biden administration fears shipments of fighter jets could draw the West into a more direct conflict with Russian forces, though he told reporters that Western support for Ukraine remained strong.
“Today’s meeting comes at a critical time,” Mr. Austin told reporters. “The Kremlin is still betting that it can wait us out.”
Mr. Austin and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said there were clear signs that Russia was mobilizing for a major offensive in the disputed areas of southern and eastern Ukraine. Fierce fighting continued around Bakhmut, a city of limited strategic value that has become a symbol of the state of the war for both sides.
Ukrainians vowed to hold the city, but reports said fighters had blown up a key bridge in the area in a possible sign that a withdrawal from Bakhmut could be near.
More than four dozen nations belonging to the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group met in Brussels to plan their next stages of support for Ukraine. One concern for the allies was that Ukrainian forces are using ammunition faster than the West can supply it. Some estimates said Ukraine is firing up to 7,000 artillery shells each day, about a third of the daily number that Russia is using, The Associated Press reported.
“Ukraine has been at this for a year. They have used a lot of artillery ammunition,” Mr. Austin said. “We’re going to do everything we can to ensure we get them as much ammunition as quickly as possible.”
Mr. Stoltenberg said Ukraine’s military needs against its larger, better-armed neighbor have evolved as the battlefield has shifted from anti-armor and anti-air weapons early in the fight to artillery and then to air defense systems.
“And now, over the last weeks and months, the allies have agreed to further step up significantly when it comes to heavy weaponry: armor, infantry fighting vehicles, but also main battle tanks,” he said. “We need to ensure that Ukraine gets the weapons it needs to be able to retake territory, liberate the lands and win this war and prevail as a sovereign, independent nation.”
During visits to Britain, France and NATO headquarters in Belgium last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pressed hard for Western combat planes to supplement his small air force. Although Ukrainian forces have performed far beyond expectations, Russia has been mobilizing more forces and threatens to overwhelm its adversary by the sheer weight of numbers.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is accompanying Mr. Austin on his European trip. He said the Russians are taking heavy casualties in the Donbas region and that their progress has been slow in what he described as a “grinding war of attrition.”
“The front line is quite stable even though it’s very violent,” Gen. Milley said.
With the anniversary looming as a milestone for both sides, Gen. Milley said it was clear that the Putin government badly misread the situation when it decided to invade last year.
“Russia is a global pariah, and the world remains inspired by Ukrainian bravery and resilience. In short, Russia has lost. They’ve lost strategically, operationally and tactically, and they are paying an enormous price on the battlefield,” Gen. Milley said.
Russia has repeatedly warned the U.S. and its allies about the huge aid flows to Kyiv. “NATO is an organization which is hostile to us and which proves this hostility every day,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said at a briefing Tuesday. “It is trying its best to make its involvement in the conflict around Ukraine as clear as possible.”
Russian forces have made limited but steady advances in eastern Ukraine while bolstering their defensive lines in the south, leaving Ukrainian defense officials uncertain of the next major thrust. The Zelenskyy government has been preparing its spring offensive and hopes to build on major successes this fall that reclaimed a significant amount of territory once held by Russia and its separatist Ukrainian allies.
Russia has made “small gains” around the northern outskirts of Bakhmut, British officials said in an intelligence assessment Tuesday, but their advance to the south of the town has made little progress because of stiff Ukrainian defense.
“Russian forces are making continuous offensive efforts, though each local attack remains on too small a scale to achieve a significant breakthrough,” British military intelligence officials posted on Twitter. “The current operational picture suggests that Russian forces are being given orders to advance in most sectors, but that they have not massed sufficient offensive combat power on any one axis to achieve a decisive effect.”
The combatants on both sides in Bakhmut are exhibiting little of the sophisticated fire-and-maneuver tactics that NATO armies practice, Gen. Milley said.
“There’s no fancy arts of maneuver going on there. This is frontal attacks [and] wave attacks,” he said. It’s “a very significant, grinding battle of attrition with very high casualties — especially on the Russian side.”
The Russians are struggling with poor leadership and morale problems, he said.
“However, they do have the numbers. Whether or not they’re successful in pressing the fight still remains to be seen,” Gen. Milley said.
Mr. Zelenskyy said the fighting in Bakhmut and other sections of the country’s Donetsk region has been difficult with almost constant Russian attacks. On his Telegram social media page, Mr. Zelenskyy said the Kremlin is ordering heavy attacks along the front line despite the Russian casualties.
“This can only be countered by extraordinary resilience and a full understanding that by defending in the Donetsk region, our warriors are defending the whole of Ukraine,” Mr. Zelenskyy said. “We are doing everything to ensure that our pressure outweighs the occupiers’ assault capabilities.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.