The last such message arrived on February 23, the day before the Russian invasion.
There have been no known air deliveries since then. Ukraine’s airspace is now part of a war zone no Western nation wants to enter, even as the United States and its allies and partners pledge more weapons for combat .
NATO territory to the west – where Ukraine borders Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania – offers the only uncontested land access yet. But the east-west roads that can provide trucking to Ukraine are few and most are congested with refugees fleeing the country.
“There are stockpiles in Poland,” where a lot of the armament coming in from outside is gathered, said Ed Arnold, a European security researcher at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute. From there, “there are only two main supply routes to Kiev”, one near the Belarusian border and a second further south.
Internal Ukrainian logistics “have been okay so far but need to improve soon,” Arnold said. “They might have three days of ammunition left in some areas.”
No one wants to say exactly how military assistance is going. “It kind of has to be something we say we do,” British Armed Forces Minister James Heappey said in an interview with British Forces Radio on Monday. “We don’t necessarily tell you exactly what, where, when and how.”
Before the invasion began, Britain air-launched 2,000 NLAW anti-tank missiles, which combat photographs show are now in use by Ukrainian forces. “We’ve actually moved more things forward, uniforms, protective gear, ammunition and weapons,” Heappey said. “We are now reaching a stage where, because combat operations are ongoing, the routes for the Ukrainians to get materiel into the country are much more difficult.”
At least 22 NATO nations and a handful of others have said they will send military assistance to Ukraine, including anti-tank missiles, artillery munitions and Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Last week, the United States announced $350 million in new shipments that it says are already arriving. In the past 10 days, the Biden administration sent Stinger anti-aircraft missile systems for the first time, along with more Javelin anti-tank missiles and munitions, according to a detailed list of transfers obtained by The Washington Post.
The shipments added to other US military aid which since late December has included shoulder-launched M141 single-shot rocket launchers, M500 shotguns, Mk-19 grenade launchers, M134 machine guns and protective suits for explosive ordnance disposal, according to the list.
Germany, reversing its long-standing reluctance to send weapons to conflicts, said on Saturday it would send 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stingers. They crossed the border on Wednesday. The European Union this week agreed to reimburse member states up to $555 million for military and humanitarian aid, a move leaders said would speed up the flow of aid.
The United States handles much of its own distribution through U.S. European Command, which coordinates with NATO, a State Department official said. The European Union has set up a coordination center to try to match what Ukraine says it needs with what member countries can offer. Poland has set up a logistics hub to collect much of the aid and transport it across the border, two EU politicians said.
The State Department official, one of several U.S. and foreign officials who spoke about the sensitive internal Allied discussions on the condition of anonymity, said there was useful ‘muscle memory’ for the aid of the United States, developed over the eight years since the end of Ukraine’s pro-Russian government.
In addition to drawing on its own stockpiles of weapons, the United States must approve the transfer of any equipment of American origin from third countries.
“When we get this list of current needs, we go through and figure out: what partners do we know that have American-sourced equipment to meet the requirement, and then reach out to individual countries and say, ‘The Ukrainians have need, say, anti-tank missiles. We know you have 300, do you have a surplus. … would you consider transferring them? ‘” the State Department official said.
“It’s a fluid situation, but we’re putting it in a good rhythm right now,” the official said. But “it would be misleading if I left you with the impression that this is a perfectly well-organized operation. … We’ve been at it for a week, with things constantly happening. We work as fast as possible. »
Since the attack began last week, 14 countries have sent supplies, a senior US defense official said. On the US side, a transfer process that typically takes weeks or months has been reduced to hours and days.
“I think we were all extremely impressed with how effectively the Ukrainian Armed Forces used the equipment we provided them,” the official said.
Poland declined to elaborate on its role as the main channel for arms aid. “For security reasons, which are obvious at this time, we cannot inform you of the details,” the Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
“Poland, NATO and EU allies are strengthening their political and practical support for Ukraine, which is defending itself against a large-scale invasion by Russia,” the statement said. “We are providing massive humanitarian aid, welcoming refugees and providing equipment. In this situation, we must also remember responsibility and moderation of information in all defense matters. Poland’s security is paramount.
Britain hosted a 25-nation conference this week to discuss and coordinate meeting Ukraine’s needs, Arnold said, but so far “it’s not about overlap.” It’s a matter of volume. At the moment, he said, the needs are “food, water, ammunition, and then what we call small arms – guns, ammunition, grenades, especially missiles anti-tank and anti-helicopter long guns. These are the most effective things…they are quite light and anyone can use them.
Some requests from Ukraine are more difficult to meet. Despite reports that the United States, or NATO, is considering sending Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries, a US official said that was not likely. “They don’t come flat-packed with an Allen wrench. You need years of training and a whole infrastructure for sustainment,” the State Department official said. “At the moment, that’s not an option.”
While the need to help Ukraine has found rare bipartisan support in Congress, some lawmakers have said aid it’s too little, too late. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — a staunch opponent of President Donald Trump’s impeachment in 2020 for using withheld military aid as leverage to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up Joe Biden during the presidential campaign – blamed current Ukrainian needs on the Biden administration.
“The challenge we have is that these are the actions that we could have done before on the part of this administration to make sure today didn’t happen,” McCarthy said Tuesday on Fox News. “We could have supplied the weapons to Ukraine. They are not asking for American troops; they just ask for the ability to fight.
Aid and how to get it to where it is needed have become hot topics for a NATO alliance fearful of being drawn into a direct confrontation with Russia. These concerns helped persuade Hungary not to allow its border to be used to deliver military support to Ukraine.
“Such deliveries could become the target of hostile military action,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said on Monday, adding that Hungary “does not send arms to Ukraine.”
The NATO leadership has repeatedly stressed that, despite sending weapons, it is not a party to the conflict. “NATO will not send troops to Ukraine or move planes into Ukrainian airspace,” alliance secretary general Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Poland.
A senior NATO diplomat said Stoltenberg was emphasizing NATO’s lack of belligerence under “warm and clear instructions from the United States to do so”.
While thousands of American troops have been sent to reinforce NATO frontline states, President Biden said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday that “our forces are not engaged and not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine”.
Inside Ukraine, “right now they are setting up infiltration routes” to pass on weapons, RUSI’s Arnold said. He said there are “probably elements of organized crime to support it…it’s basically arms smuggling. It’s happening all over the world” by people who “either support the cause or think they can make a lot of money out of it. Conflicts like this attract all types of people.
Some policymakers in NATO countries fear that if Russia becomes desperate – whether because of a stalled advance inside Ukraine or painful Western sanctions – it could lash out at supporters of Ukraine by attacking military aid convoys before they reach the Ukrainian border.
“It’s something to take into account,” said a senior European diplomat.
Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said in an interview that if Russian President Vladimir Putin wants a pretext to attack NATO, he will find one regardless of what the alliance does.
“I don’t think Russia can just accuse us of deliveries – just because it can’t be construed as a war between NATO and Russia,” Pabriks said. “But, of course, if they want to interpret something negatively, Putin can always imagine something.”
Max Bearak from Brzegi Dolne, Poland contributed to this report.