Trump-proofing weapons for Ukraine: Allies consider moving arms group into NATO

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The U.S. and other Western countries are considering transferring to NATO a U.S.-led multinational group that coordinates the shipment of weapons to Ukraine, one of several new proposals that could help maintain the flow of arms to Kyiv under a second Donald Trump presidency.

During the NATO foreign ministerial meeting in Brussels Wednesday and Thursday, officials are expected to discuss a range of options, including gradually moving the organization — called the Ukraine Defense Contact Group — into the alliance’s control, according to three European officials and a U.S. official with knowledge of the internal deliberations. The goal would be to finalize the move at the NATO leaders’ summit in Washington in July, one of the officials said.

A second U.S. official said that another proposal would give NATO a more formalized seat at the table within the Ukraine group, as opposed to moving it under NATO control. The idea, from the U.S. side, would be to strengthen the ties between NATO and Ukraine for long-term support, the official said.

The Ukraine group was launched in the early weeks of the war by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and then-Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley to coordinate Western support for Kyiv’s defenses. It’s credited with speeding tens of billions of dollars in equipment, weapons and other aid to Ukraine that have been critical in staving off Russian forces.

The discussions about NATO’s involvement with the group are happening “at very senior levels,” with the goal of formalizing European and alliance support for Kyiv, said the U.S. official, adding that one consideration heading into U.S. and European elections is to make the group “more enduring.”

Defense Department spokesperson Maj. Charlie Dietz declined to confirm the discussions, saying DOD had “no new announcements to make regarding the format or structure” of the group.

“We are constantly discussing how we can ensure that our support for Ukraine is sustained and how we can organize the support in the best possible way,” Dietz said.

Transferring the group to NATO would be a significant move toward cementing Western support for Ukraine’s war for the foreseeable future, amid Europe’s fear of the return of Trump to the White House. In the near term, domestic politics in the U.S. and other countries is already threatening to cut off funding to send Kyiv additional weapons.

Formalizing the group within NATO would go a long way toward protecting support for Ukraine from changes in U.S. and Western governments, experts said — and particularly from Trump.

“There’s a feeling among, not the whole group but a part of the NATO group, that thinks it is better to institutionalize the process just in case of a Trump re-election,” said Jim Townsend, a former Pentagon and NATO official. “And that’s something that the U.S. is going to have to get used to hearing, because that is a fear, and a legitimate one.

“Pulling this under NATO kind of isolates it from a Trump presidency, or even from a U.S. that might get distracted by China and can’t keep it going or can’t get his own funding act together,” he added.

If successful, the move would be the latest among a series of actions taken to shore up institutions in anticipation of another Trump presidency. Late last year, lawmakers approved a law to require congressional approval if a future president tried to pull out of NATO, and are considering further protection measures.

Austin and Milley established the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in the spring of 2022, weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine. The idea was to bring together defense chiefs from various Western countries to discuss what weapons and other military aid to send to Kyiv.

However, the group has run into obstacles in recent months as U.S. funding for Ukraine dried up. The Pentagon said in December it would not be able to send any additional weapons from its stockpiles until Congress appropriated additional funds for the war effort. The Senate passed a $95 billion supplemental package including additional aid for Ukraine, but the legislation has been stalled in the House for months.

The Pentagon cobbled together a new $300 million package of aid last month, including much-needed artillery and air defenses, by using cost savings from previous contracts. This allowed DOD to send additional weapons without harming U.S. military readiness.

The package will include a number of Army Tactical Missile Systems that can travel 100 miles and carry warheads containing cluster bomblets, POLITICO first reported. Ukraine has been asking for more of the missiles for months in order to attack targets deep inside Russian front lines.

But DOD officials now say they cannot send additional aid until Congress passes the supplemental.

“As you’ve seen us continue to urge, the most important thing that we want to see Congress pass is the supplemental,” Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh said on Monday. “Hopefully, when the House is back in session next week, they will bring it to the floor, and then we can continue getting out those [packages] regularly.”

Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said the focus is on getting Ukraine additional ammunition and air defenses.

“So that tends to be the focus of our discussions, both in the US-led UDCG and among allies here in NATO headquarters, the way in which that we can ensure that the Ukrainians continue to have the upper hand and see success on the battlefield is to keep that assistance flowing,” Smith said.

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