BRUSSELS — With Russia bearing down on a strategically important city in eastern Ukraine, NATO defense ministers are meeting on Tuesday to discuss Kyiv’s urgent battlefield needs, including efforts to supply much-needed ammunition for artillery and tanks.
As Russia continues to make grinding gains — particularly around the fiercely contested eastern city of Bakhmut — and the war nears its first anniversary, Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said in his opening remarks that the meeting was taking place at “a critical time for our security.”
Mr. Stoltenberg said the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group, the larger group of countries supporting Ukraine militarily and financially, would meet later on Tuesday to “address the urgent needs for increased support to Ukraine.”
“Not least the need to provide more ammunition and also how to ramp up production and strengthen our defense industry to be able to provide the necessary ammunition to Ukraine and also to replenish our own stocks,” he said.
Ukrainian officials have said that they are in dire need of more Soviet-caliber ammunition for the T-72 tanks they already possess in large numbers, as well as NATO-caliber artillery shells to work with allied-supplied heavy guns.
Even as NATO countries try to ramp up manufacturing, waiting times to secure new large-caliber ammunition have grown from 12 months to 28 months, even if contracts are signed immediately, Mr. Stoltenberg said.
The Pentagon is already racing to increase production of artillery shells by 500 percent within two years, pushing conventional ammunition production to levels not seen since the Korean War.
Ukrainian and Russian troops are firing thousands of howitzer rounds at each other every day, U.S. officials say, along a front line more than 600 miles long.
The two-day meeting, and the meeting with the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, are part of a series of diplomatic gatherings this week.
“This contact group has made it clear that we will support Ukraine’s fight for freedom over the long haul and help Ukraine hold, and advance, during the spring counteroffensive,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said on Tuesday, referring to the long expected renewed push by Ukrainian forces as the war enters a new phase.
High on the list of Ukraine’s requests has been Western fighter jets — a topic that was certain to be discussed, Mr. Stoltenberg said, even if approval to provide them, let alone deliver them, seems distant.
“The urgent need now is to deliver what has always been promised,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. The U.S. and several other NATO allies have committed to supplying tanks to aid Kyiv’s war effort, but they are expected to take months to arrive.
“The issue of aircraft is not the most urgent issue now,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “But it is an ongoing discussion.”
President Biden said last month that his administration would not provide American F-16s. And while Britain has said it is willing to begin training Ukrainian pilots, it would not be able to supply Typhoon or Tornado fighter jets on its own.
Both aircraft were joint projects with Italy, Spain and Germany, and export to Ukraine would require other countries to sign off. Like Mr. Biden, Olaf Scholz, the chancellor of Germany, has said that he opposes supplying fighter jets to Ukraine.
The NATO defense ministers were also due to examine how to increase support for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Moldova, “three valued NATO partners which face Russian threats,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.
The ministers were expected to discuss preparations and goals for the alliance’s summit in July, when the alliance will grapple with replacing Mr. Stoltenberg, whose extended term runs out at the end of September. Mr. Stoltenberg has made it clear through his spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, that after nearly nine years in the job, he would not seek another extension.
Matthew Mpoke Bigg contributed reporting.