Nuclear threats hang over Europe as weapons leaders gather in Brussels

Last updated on September 28, 2022

Top military weapons buyers from dozens of countries are huddling in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss next steps in arming Ukraine for the long haul, and to begin mapping out a strategy for replenishing their own stocks depleted by the war.

The meeting takes place as the Kremlin hardens its position on the war, calling up 300,000 conscripts and threatening to use nuclear weapons if Ukraine continues its offensive against Russian-occupied territory.

Northern European countries are also scrambling to figure out what happened to natural gas pipelines on the Baltic Sea floor that ruptured on Tuesday, halting Russian gas to the rest of the continent, though European leaders suspect the explosions were intentional.

“It’s hard to imagine that it’s accidental,” Denmark’s prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, told reporters Tuesday, while Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki blamed Russia, saying “we do not know the details of what happened yet, but we can clearly see that it is an act of sabotage.”

The day of meetings in Brussels comes under the umbrella of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, an ad hoc alliance of around 50 NATO, EU and other nations that have gathered every few weeks to discuss what military aid can be sent to Ukraine rapidly. Those meetings have spurred the transfer of American-made guided-missile launchers, along with multiple rocket launchers, armored vehicles and artillery systems from across Europe. William LaPlante, the Pentagon’s top acquisitions official, is convening Wednesday’s meeting.

The Pentagon is also expected to announce a new $1.1 billion military aid package to Ukraine on Wednesday, two people with knowledge of the issue told POLITICO. The money will be drawn from the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, leaving about $400 million in the account. The fund provides money to allow the U.S. government to sign contracts with defense firms to provide long-term support for Ukraine, including air defense systems, that take longer to build. The news of the package was first reported by Reuters.

There is also $2.8 billion remaining in presidential drawdown authority, which allows President Joe Biden to pull weapons and equipment out of American military stocks for rapid shipment to Kyiv.

Congress is set to approve a new tranche of $12.3 billion in military and economic funding for Ukraine this week as part of a deal to fund the federal government into December.

The funding package includes another $3 billion for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and a fresh $1.5 billion for the U.S. defense industry to backfill weapons and equipment that’s been sent into the fight. Lawmakers are also set to authorize the administration to ship up to $3.7 billion worth of weapons from military stockpiles to Ukraine.

An increased supply of weapons to replace what’s been given to Ukraine couldn’t come quickly enough for frontline states in Europe. They fear that clogged supply chains, dwindling workforces and long lead times will leave their arsenals thinned out, complicating their material support to Kyiv in the months ahead.

“There’s no quick replenishment fix,” a senior Finnish defense official told POLITICO and a group of reporters and experts in Helsinki last week, noting that everyone’s stocks are shrinking fast. “Big wars take a lot of bullets.”

“We are having discussions with the defense industry because like most countries we have taken equipment, weapons, ammunition and so on from our stocks to send to Ukraine,” Norwegian Defense Minister Bjørn Arild Gram told POLITICO during a visit to Washington for meetings at the Pentagon last week. “We will still look into that but at the same time … we have to replenish our own stocks and also purchase more for Ukraine.”

In the meantime, officials in Europe’s east continue to push France and Germany to arm Kyiv, giving Ukraine the firepower it needs and smaller countries enough time to regrow their arsenals. “If other countries did as much as we are doing, the war would be over,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks told the same group of reporters and experts in Riga last week.

At issue are calls for Germany to give Leopard main battle tanks to Ukraine to help in its grinding offensives in the south and east, something Berlin has so far refused to do until other allies also send heavy armor. The French are also in the mix for potentially sending more Caesar mobile howitzers to Ukraine, and Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna arrived in Kyiv on an unannounced visit on Tuesday,

Colonna’s visit comes as Moscow completes its forced annexation referendums in occupied eastern Ukrainian, which could allow Putin to falsely declare them as part of Russia.

The votes have been slammed as theater by Western nations, who fear that a Russian announcement that the areas are now part of Russia could lead to nuclear escalation should Ukrainian forces continue their counteroffensives to liberate occupied territory.

Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.