NATO seeks air defenses for Ukraine as Congress finally nears vote on aid

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BRUSSELS — Ukraine was left in a position of anxious waiting on Friday, as NATO allies vowed that a response to the country’s urgent calls for more Patriot air defense systems would come soon and as billions in long-blocked U.S. aid finally inched toward a vote in the House.

NATO countries had reviewed their stores and identified additional air defense systems, including Patriot missiles, that could be sent to Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after a virtual meeting of alliance defense ministers. But Stoltenberg did not announce what would be sent, or when. And although he said countries had made “concrete commitments,” he still seemed to be trying to persuade members to contribute.

“Allies must dig deep into inventories and speed up delivery of missiles, artillery and ammunition,” he said at a news conference in Brussels. “Support to Ukraine is not charity — it is an investment in our own security.”

Ukraine’s plea for more air defense has taken on greater urgency as Russia has increased attacks on population centers and energy installations — and after Ukraine watched the United States and its allies help Israel repel a major Iranian missile and drone attack.

“Our partners possess the necessary capabilities,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a post on social media Friday. “This has been demonstrated in the skies over the Middle East, and it should also work in Europe.”

The biggest help would be the unblocking of $60 billion in U.S. aid that House Republicans have stalled for months. Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has sought to make progress by separating aid for different allies into five bills. Passage of the Ukraine portion was looking more likely after a rare bipartisan coalition moved it forward Friday — though Johnson’s effort has fueled threats to oust him.

“Everybody’s waiting for Congress finally to make a decision on the supplemental, because for Ukrainians and for Europe as a whole, it’s an existential question,” said Jovita Neliupsiene, the European Union’s ambassador in Washington. Since her arrival in January, she has been involved in a whirlwind of efforts to encourage congressional Republicans to move forward on the aid.

“We need to stop [Vladimir] Putin and the Russian regime advancing,” she said, referring to the Kremlin leader.

While the United States has debated support for Ukraine and other allies, Ukrainian troops have grown desperately short on ammunition and air defense — a weakness Russian forces have sought to exploit.

As Ukraine seeks to hold Russia off, it has pushed in particular for more Patriot systems. The U.S.-designed technology, which costs more than $1 billion, is especially effective against ballistic missiles.

Ukraine has three Patriot systems: one from the United States and two from Germany. German officials announced last weekend that they would send another, and they have been pushing to get allies to make a coordinated contribution.

The extended U.S. foot-dragging on aid has ended up making Germany — despite all the criticism it has gotten throughout the war for its slowness and reluctance to send arms — the leading supplier of military aid to Ukraine, with the authority to demand that other allies do more.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has appeared eager to signal German leadership.

“Germany has taken very comprehensive measures to equip Ukraine with small and large systems,” he said Thursday. “But even with regards to the large Patriot system … we are now the country that is making the most substantial contribution here.”

He zeroed in on the idea that six more Patriots were available to be donated from NATO countries.

Ukrainian officials say it would take more than two dozen to shield the whole country, and in an interview with The Washington Post last week, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his team had identified more than 100 Patriots that could be considered available. But Kuleba said he was initially focused on obtaining seven as quickly as possible.

It is not clear which countries have the systems Scholz and Stoltenberg were talking about, or how long it would take to get them to the battlefield. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a leading contender to be NATO’s next secretary general, suggested Wednesday that the weapons and money were there — that only the will was missing.

“We know that many countries are sitting on large piles of Patriot systems, maybe not wanting to deliver it directly,” he said at a summit in Brussels. “We can buy it from them, we can deliver it to Ukraine, we have the money available. It’s crucial.”

Calls for allies to deliver more-sophisticated air defense have in some cases been met with claims that NATO countries must hold on to their equipment to meet NATO goals.

Stoltenberg has urged allies to consider Ukraine’s needs first. “If allies face a choice between meeting NATO capability targets and providing more aid to Ukraine, my message is clear: Send more to Ukraine,” he said Wednesday.

On Thursday night into Friday, attacks in Ukraine again resulted in civilian casualties. In Dnipro, Ukraine’s largest eastern city, a missile strike on a five-story residential building near the train station resulted in the deaths of at least eight people, including two children.

Hours after the attack, emergency services were still working to put out a fire at the scene. Residents of the partly destroyed building were carrying out some belongings, while others were assessing the damage.

But in a sign of how commonplace such strikes have become across the country, the area around the train station was still busy with people going to work and shopping.

After a series of attacks against energy infrastructure, power providers on Friday warned that parts of the country could be without electricity for several hours in the evening.

Khurshudyan reported from Dnipro. Michael Birnbaum in Washington contributed to this report.

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