UPDATED: NATO to help Ukraine with transition to Western weapons

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BRUSSELS, June 15 (Reuters) – A NATO summit in Madrid later this month is expected to agree an assistance package for Ukraine that will help the country with the move from old Soviet-era weaponry to NATO standard gear, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday.

“It is very much about enabling the Ukrainians to transition from Soviet-era, from old equipment to more modern NATO standard equipment,” he told reporters ahead of a meeting of the alliance’s defence ministers in Brussels.

Dozens of defense ministers from NATO and other parts of the world are expected to discuss weapon deliveries to Ukraine on Wednesday in Brussels, U.S. officials said, as Kyiv calls for a significant increase in arms to help hold off Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

The battle for Sievierodonetsk – a city of barely more than 100,000 people before the war – is now the biggest fight in Ukraine as the conflict has shifted into a punishing war of attrition.

Ukraine needs 1,000 howitzers, 500 tanks and 1,000 drones among other heavy weapons, presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Monday. Western countries have promised NATO-standard weapons – including advanced U.S. rockets. But deploying them is taking time, and Ukraine will require consistent Western support to transition to new supplies and systems as stocks dwindle of their Soviet-era weapons and munitions.

The meeting on Wednesday on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministerial is being led by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the third time the group of nearly 50 countries are meeting to discuss and coordinate assistance to Ukraine. The previous in-person meeting was at Ramstein Air Base in Germany in April.

“Russia has not given up on the fight, despite its pretty anemic progress… What we have is this grinding, slow, incremental Russian operation,” a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.

“So the question is what do the Ukrainians need to continue the success they’ve already seen in slowing down and thwarting that Russian objective and that’ll be a major focus for the defense ministers,” the official said.

U.S. officials expect announcements on additional weapons to Ukrainian forces in the coming days.

The United States has committed about $4.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, including artillery systems like the howitzers and longer-range weapons like the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).

Attending the meeting in Brussels is U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs, Jessica Lewis, who gives policy direction for international security, defense trade and security assistance. Lewis told Reuters in an interview on Friday that allies could ask for many defense articles to help backfill arms sent to Ukraine.

“I expect we’ll see the whole range here. So not just air defense, but I think people will be looking at, you know, if they provided tanks, that’s something they could be looking for,” Lewis said

That could include tanks made by General Dynamics Corp GD.N or air defense systems from companies like Lockheed Martin LMT.N or Raytheon Technologies RTX.N.

While the United States is still consulting with allies, many are trying to move away from Soviet-era equipment to NATO-standard equipment, Lewis said. 

“Because of the war in Ukraine, countries understand their defense needs differently, particularly, obviously, if they are close to Ukraine,” Lewis said adding, “I think people feel more worried because of Russia’s willingness to invade Ukraine.”

Russia launched what it calls a “special operation” in Ukraine in February, saying it was needed to rid the country of dangerous nationalists and degrade Ukraine’s military capabilities – aims the West denounced as a baseless pretext.

The Biden administration has said that it has received assurances from Kyiv that those longer-range weapons will not be used to attack Russian territory, fearing an escalation of the conflict.

Kyiv has said it is losing 100 to 200 soldiers each day, with hundreds more wounded. In an overnight address, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy described the battle for the eastern Donbas region – partly occupied by Moscow proxies since 2014 – as one of the most brutal in European history.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Robin Emmott in Brussles and Mike Stone in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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