Austin Says Group of 40 Nations Focused on Sending More Weapons to Ukraine

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Ministers of defense and military officials discuss Ukraine at Ramstein Air Base.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III with ministers of defense and senior military officials from more than 40 countries to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, April 26, 2022, to discuss the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jared Lovett)

A group of 40 nations gathered together by the U.S. in Germany this week will work to send more weapons and aid to Ukraine as its war with Russia enters a crucial phase, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at Ramstein Air Base on Tuesday.

The first-of-its-kind summit conducted outside of NATO and the U.N. yielded a commitment of 50 Gepard, or Cheetah, anti-aircraft systems from Germany, more anti-aircraft weapons from the U.K., and armored vehicles from Canada, Austin said during a press conference following the event. Nations were encouraged to work with the U.S. European Command on the logistics of moving weapons into the country.

The summit will become a monthly event aimed at rushing new arms to Ukrainian forces as they face off with Russian artillery, armor and missiles in the flat eastern Donbas region, and Moscow continues to bomb cities and civilian targets such as rail stations. Attendees at the summit included many European nations but also Australia, South Korea and Japan, according to Reuters.

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"We don't have any time to waste. The briefings today laid out clearly why the coming weeks will be so crucial for Ukraine. So we've got to move at the speed of war," Austin said. "I know that all the leaders leave today more resolved than ever to support Ukraine in this fight against Russian aggression and atrocities."

The group of nations "will be a vehicle for nations of goodwill to intensify our efforts and coordinate our assistance and focus on winning today's fight and the struggles to come," he said.

Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met in Kyiv on Sunday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Following the meeting, the defense secretary said he wants to see Russia's military weakened so it can't threaten Ukraine and its neighbors.

Moscow struck rail stations across Ukraine on Monday -- part of a bombing campaign that has also targeted civilians throughout the conflict -- and its top diplomat warned the West on Tuesday not to underestimate the potential for nuclear war over the conflict, according to The Associated Press.

"The danger is serious," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly said in a TV interview.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has also made a veiled threat of using the world's most powerful weapons, putting his nuclear forces on heightened alert at the outset of the two-month-old war. The U.S. delayed a long-scheduled Minuteman III nuclear test launch in March in an effort to reduce tensions. The two countries own the world's largest stockpiles of nuclear arms.

Austin condemned the threatening talk from Russia.

"Nobody wants to see a nuclear war happen. It's a war where all sides lose, and so, rattling of saber and dangerous rhetoric is clearly unhelpful and something that we won't engage in," he said.

Aid from the U.S. and other nations has ramped up as the belief grows that Ukraine -- the underdog to Russia's much larger military -- could actually win the war. On top of the commitments Tuesday, the U.S. has provided 90 155mm howitzer cannons, as well as training, Mi-17 helicopters, armored personnel carriers, radar systems, Switchblade drones, and the newly developed Phoenix Ghost drone.

The U.S. has pumped a total of $3.4 billion in national security assistance into Ukraine, including thousands of shoulder-fired Javelin and Stinger missiles that helped to repel Russian tanks, armored vehicles and aircraft during the earlier phase of the war.

Russia floundered in its initial effort to seize control of Ukraine and its capital Kyiv and seemingly underestimated the Ukrainian military when it launched the unprovoked invasion on Feb. 24. The flawed invasion exposed weaknesses in its own military logistics, leaving troops without enough food and fuel, and its inability to use combined air and ground forces on the battlefield.

Moscow pulled its badly depleted forces from around Kyiv and has begun to refocus its military assault on Mariupol and the Donbas, the country's industrial heartland of Donetsk and Luhansk, where it has been fueling a separatist war since 2014. Seizing the Donbas is now Russia's stated goal in the war.

If successful, Russia would cleave off a chunk of eastern Ukraine that connects to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula it annexed eight years ago despite international condemnation.

Austin said during his press conference on Tuesday that Russia is now in a weakened state, urging speedy support to Ukraine. Russia has suffered "substantial" casualties and the loss of the key battleship Moskva, which was reportedly hit by anti-ship cruise missiles launched by Ukraine.

"They've lost a lot of equipment. They've used a lot of precision-guided munitions. They've lost a major surface combatant," he said. "And so they are in fact, in terms of military capability, weaker than when it started."

-- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

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