A year ago, Ukrainian officials at a meeting at Germany’s Ramstein Air Force Base begged their Western counterparts to provide them with all arms and ammunition after Russia’s failed siege of Kiev caused their supplies to nearly run dry.
Now in a better position, Ukrainian officials said this week they wanted to discuss their path to victory when they met again with allies in Ramstein on Friday. Ukrainian troops are preparing for another counteroffensive that will include a wealth of Western military hardware provided by the US and other participating countries.
The new hope from Kiev is that their attacks could eventually include larger air and sea systems from the west.
“There is a very clear belief among the participants that Ukraine should win. That it will be a joint success,” Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told NBC News of the deliberations at the recent Ramstein meeting. “The partners make it clear that they will provide support for as long as necessary. The trajectory for us has changed from survival to victory.”
The group — an initiative of more than 50 countries, including the United States and all 30 NATO member states — is meeting at Ramstein Air Base for the eleventh time. Almost a year ago, the group met for the first time after Russia withdrew from Kiev. Ukraine prepared for a counter-offensive around the then-occupied city of Kharkiv, the eventual success of which liberated the region.
At present, a months-long standoff between the two sides near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine is further inflating the toll and destroying stockpiles of ammunition. Kiev officials arrived at the meeting on Friday with new targets as they prepare for their latest counter-offensive that they hope will leave the Kremlin behind.
Three Ukrainian defense officials involved in the talks said at previous meetings they had successfully pushed for Western support and equipment, particularly tanks. German Leopard 2s and British Challenger 2s are now in the country and US-made M1 Abrams are expected to arrive in the coming months.
That means, officials said, Ukraine is pushing to form coalitions focused on increasing Black Sea security as well as fighter jets. “This is the future of Ramstein,” said one of the officials. “Towards more sophisticated platforms.”
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Bordered by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia and Romania, the Black Sea has been a security concern since Russia launched its bloody invasion of Ukraine. Both sides rely on the sea for trade, and a blockade by Moscow last year nearly triggered a global food crisis.
The Ukraine will probably have to struggle with the naval power of Moscow at some point. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is currently headquartered in Crimea, territory occupied by Russia since 2014 and a top destination of Ukraine. It’s unclear what naval effort Ukraine might make given its limited sea capabilities, but its coastal defenses have kept Russia at bay.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told NBC News last week that Ukraine’s efforts in the Black Sea could force the Kremlin to act.
“It’s a brave Russian captain who is about to land a ship somewhere near the Ukrainian coast,” Wallace said. “And depending on what happens, the counter-offensive, I think those are the kind of important moves that might make Russia think it’s really time for negotiations.”
As for fighter jets, the Biden administration has so far resisted providing them. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed the importance of ground-based air defense weapons when reporters asked about Ukraine’s demands for American F-16s in Ramstein on Friday.
Two Pentagon documents, allegedly leaked by a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, appear to show Ukraine consuming large amounts of its air defense munitions while fending off relentless Russian drone and missile attacks. Without more ammunition and air support, Russia could potentially secure air superiority and begin flying warplanes over areas held by Ukrainian troops, one of the two Feb. 28 documents said.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, said at the Ramstein press conference alongside Austin that the entire day was devoted to air defense discussions. He said decisions about deploying F-16 fighter jets are “political issues made by political leaders.”
Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Reznikiov, said Kiev is realistic and knows they won’t get fighter jets overnight. But, he added, the planes are necessary to win the war – and therefore Ukraine will not desist from the pressure campaign.
“This war is far from over. Russia will not go away. Russia also shows no signs of wanting to end this war,” Sak said. “In order for us to be more efficient and more successful on the battlefield, we need fighter jets, we need F-16s because they will give us air superiority in the long term.”
Still, Ukrainian officials acknowledged they’ve come a long way.
At the start of the war, Ukraine was a little over six to eight weeks away from running out of ammunition, officials said.
The dynamic has changed significantly since last year, when few countries were willing to ship ammunition to Ukraine and private sellers “only sold for full upfront payment,” they said.
“In the time before Ramstein , we tried everything to get arms and ammunition,” said one official, noting that since the war Ukraine had had to learn how to buy large quantities of arms very quickly. “We got some help, but we also bought everything we could get our hands on.”
Buying everything they can remains a tactic, but guns and ammo are becoming increasingly difficult to source as demand has soared worldwide. Arms manufacturers are struggling to meet demand, and countries aiding Ukraine are beginning to see their own supplies running low.
Pentagon officials said during a briefing last month that the US will do whatever it takes to boost production and solve potential bottlenecks in the defense industry.
“Make no mistake,” Assistant Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said at the briefing. “We buy to the limits of the industrial base, even as we expand those limits, and we continue to work to cut bureaucracy and shorten deadlines. ”