The United States expects Ukraine to fight through the winter. Allies strengthen air defenses

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Wednesday that Ukraine is expected to fight through harsh winter conditions in a bid to reclaim more territory from Russia, as allies announced the delivery of new air defenses and committed more aid in the war. Following the Russian missile strikes.

Military analysts are watching whether the fighting subsides during Ukraine’s harsh winter, which could give forces on both sides of the conflict a chance to reset after months of brutal fighting since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

But Austin, speaking at a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels of about 50 countries providing military aid to Ukraine, said he expected Kyiv to do what it could to move forward after retaking lands captured by Russian forces in recent weeks.

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“I expect Ukraine to continue to do everything in its power throughout the winter to regain its territory and to be effective on the battlefield,” Austin told a news conference.

“And we will do everything we can to make sure that they have what is needed to be effective.”

A senior US defense official said there was an “influx” of support to help Ukraine get through the winter months of fighting, including providing winter clothing.

“But what about those Russian forces? What kind of support will they have during the winter? Right now, the Russians are isolated and lonely,” the official said.

Several countries condemned the invasion, which Russian President Vladimir Putin described as a “special military operation” to ensure Russian security and protect Russian speakers in Ukraine.

Ukraine and its allies accuse Moscow of waging a war to seize territory or even occupy a pro-Western neighbour.

Missile attacks

Austin opened the NATO event, seated alongside his Ukrainian counterpart, by condemning Putin’s deadly missile attacks against “targets that have no military purpose” across Ukraine two days ago.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the strikes met the definition of war crimes under international rules of war. Kyiv and its allies have repeatedly accused Russian forces of committing war crimes and targeting civilians, charges that Russia rejects.

“Russia deliberately bombed civilian infrastructure with the aim of harming civilians,” Milley told reporters.

“They targeted the elderly, women and children of Ukraine. Indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on civilian targets are a war crime in international rules of war.”

Recent Russian air attacks have killed 19 people in Ukraine, wounded more than 100, and cut power supplies across the country, adding new urgency to Kyiv’s longstanding calls for air defenses to protect its cities.

Germany announced that the first four IRIS-T air defense systems have arrived in Ukraine. German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht described it as “a very important support for Ukraine in the fight against missile attacks”.

A ‘physical response’?

The gathering in Brussels is also the first major NATO meeting since Moscow in September announced its annexation of four regions of Ukraine, announced mobilization and issued veiled nuclear threats – moves that the alliance characterized as a clear escalation of the war.

A senior NATO official said a Russian nuclear strike would change the course of the conflict and almost certainly trigger a “material response” from Ukraine’s allies – “and possibly NATO itself”.

The official did not elaborate on what the physical response might entail.

NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group will hold a closed-door meeting on Thursday, but the alliance has not disclosed details of what specifically will be discussed.

Speaking ahead of the two-day meeting of the alliance’s defense ministers, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance will continue its annual nuclear readiness exercises next week.

He was referring to the “Noon Clash” exercise in which NATO air forces use US nuclear bombs stationed in Europe with training flights without live weapons.

Stoltenberg said canceling the exercises because of the war in Ukraine would send a “very wrong signal”.

“It is an exercise to ensure our nuclear deterrent remains safe and effective,” he said, adding that NATO military force was the best way to prevent any increase in tensions. Moscow accuses the West of intensifying the conflict by backing Kyiv.

Europe is already on alert after the attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines that run under the Baltic Sea, although it remains unclear who was behind the bombings.

NATO said it would face attacks on critical Allied infrastructure with a “united and resolute response” and had already doubled its presence in the Baltic and North Seas to more than 30 ships supported by aircraft and maritime activities.

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Additional reporting by Sabine Siebold, Philip Blinkinsop and Phil Stewart. Additional reporting by John Chalmers and Jan Struchevsky. Editing by Nick McPhee, Jonathan Otis and Grant McCall

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