The fight in Ukraine has become “a war of attrition” and Western aid for Kyiv against Russia is more vital than ever, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday, offering a grim assessment of the bloody conflict as it nears the 100-day mark but also expressing deep solidarity with the embattled government in Kyiv.
Speaking to reporters at the White House after meeting with President Biden, the NATO chief outlined a broad strategy for the transatlantic military alliance for the weeks and months to come. It’s focused primarily on ramping up arms shipments and other assistance to Ukraine to help repel Russia’s major offensive in the eastern Donbas region and prevent Russian forces from capturing more territory.
The president and NATO chief also previewed a major NATO summit set for the end of this month in Madrid, expected to formally invite Sweden and Finland to join the 30-nation alliance if current NATO member Turkey lifts its objections.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy estimated Thursday that enemy troops now control about 20% of his country, which is approximately the size of Texas — underscoring the urgent situation facing the government in Kyiv.
Despite its early setbacks and embarrassing missteps on the battlefield, Russia now appears to be making incremental but steady progress on the eastern front, having taken nearly total control of the key cities of Mariupol and Sievierodonetsk. Stopping Russia’s advance is crucial and would give Kyiv valuable leverage at the negotiating table, which is where the conflict ultimately will find its end, Mr. Stoltenberg said.
“Wars are by nature unpredictable and therefore we just have to be prepared for the long haul,” he said. “Because what we see is that this war has now become a war of attrition, where the Ukrainians are paying a high price for defending their own country on the battlefield, but also we see that Russia is taking high casualties.”
“Our responsibility is to provide support to Ukraine,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “Most wars … will at some stage end at the negotiating table. But what we know is that what happens around the negotiating table is very closely linked to the situation on the ground, on the battlefield.”
Mr. Stoltenberg’s comments came just hours after Britain announced it would send a new shipment of medium-range M270 rocket launchers to Ukraine, the latest in a series of NATO weapons deliveries that have helped Ukrainian troops slow and in some cases roll back Russian advances.
Britain’s announcement came one day after the White House unveiled a new $700 million aid package to Ukraine. The U.S. package includes the light, agile M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System; four Mi-17 helicopters; seven counter-artillery and air surveillance radar systems; 15,000 155mm artillery rounds; 6,000 anti-armor weapons; and 15 tactical vehicles, Pentagon officials said.
The Biden administration Thursday also announced yet another round of sanctions on Russian individuals and entities, including Sergei Roldugin, a close associate of Mr. Putin, seven Russian luxury vessels and three aircraft. Other NATO members also have announced their own aid packages in recent days.
But that assistance is deepening an already historic rift between Moscow and the West. Kremlin officials on Thursday warned the U.S. and its allies of “absolutely undesirable and rather unpleasant scenarios” if Ukrainian troops use foreign weapons to strike the Russian homeland.
“This pumping of Ukraine with weapons … will bring more suffering to Ukraine, which is merely a tool in the hands of those countries that supply it with weapons,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
On the ground, Western intelligence officials say that Russia has made some gains in the Donbas but has paid a steep toll.
Russia “continues to make steady local gains, enabled by a heavy concentration of artillery,” the U.K. Ministry of Defense said in a Twitter post. “This has not been without cost, and Russian forces have sustained losses in the process.”
The ministry said Russia now faces the risky proposition of crossing the Siverskyy Donets River as it focuses on the Donetsk region, where Ukrainian armed forces have set up defensive positions and destroyed bridges.
Against that backdrop, Mr. Zelenskyy on Thursday used a video address to a European security conference to plead for more weapons and for the West to implement even harsher economic sanctions on Moscow.
“As of today, the occupiers control almost 20% of our territory,” he said.
That figure could soon rise if Russian advances in the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces — which collectively make up the Donbas region — continue at their current pace. But Ukrainian troops are mounting a fierce defense, and military analysts generally agree that the conflict is now approaching a new “frozen” state with limited gains by either side.
That new reality has led international leaders such as Mr. Stoltenberg to stress that cease-fire negotiations are likely the only feasible path out of war. The Kremlin, however, has signaled it would take a hard line in such talks. Absent a clear defeat on the battlefield, Russia almost certainly would insist on claiming control of the Donbas and retaining control of Crimea, which it forcibly annexed in 2014.
Ukrainian leaders have all but ruled out permanently relinquishing their claim to all of the territories now in Russian hands.
Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska said Thursday that conceding territory likely wouldn’t stop Russian aggression.
Ms. Zelenska, speaking to ABC’s “Good Morning America” in her first solo television interview, said giving up land is “like conceding a freedom.”
“Even if we would consider territories, the aggressor would not stop at that,” she said. “He would continue pressing, he would continue launching more and more steps forward, more and more attacks against our territory.”
Ms. Zelenska said support from the U.S. and other countries is “really important, because you feel you’re not alone.”
(Tom Howell Jr. and Mike Glenn contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire-service reports)