US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin on Wednesday hailed Ukraine’s “extraordinary gains on the battlefield”, which he attributed in part to “vital” support from Nato allies, including billions of dollars in military aid, along with humanitarian and financial assistance.
“Despite Putin’s new assaults, Ukrainian forces have changed the dynamics of this war,” Mr Austin said at a two-day meeting of Nato defence ministers at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.
“They’ve liberated hundreds of towns from Russian occupation. They’ve retaken thousands of square kilometres of their land,” said Mr Austin, who headed a US-led Ukraine defence contact group meeting.
“These victories belong to Ukrainian soldiers but the contact group’s security, assistance training and sustainment efforts have been vital,” added Mr Austin.
He vowed the Ukraine contact group would “continue to boost Ukraine’s defensive capabilities for today’s urgent need and for the long haul".
"We gather again today to support Ukraine's inalienable right to defend itself and our resolve and steadiness of purpose has only been strengthened," he said.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov and Ukraine’s joint forces commander Major General Eduard Moskalyov also attended Wednesday’s meeting.
Ukraine’s military command said on Wednesday that it had recaptured five settlements in southern Kherson as part of its counteroffensive.
Ukraine and its capital city Kyiv were the target of a barrage of Russian missiles on Monday, two days after an unclaimed explosion on a vital bridge to Crimea, which Russia has blamed on Ukraine.
Pope Francis on Wednesday condemned Russia’s “relentless bombing” of Ukrainian cities, which killed dozens since Monday.
Nato’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg has described the attacks as the “most serious escalation” since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. He said that boosting Ukraine's air defences will be a top priority.
Mr Austin accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of “lashing out against civilian targets and infrastructure in Ukraine’s cities”.
“The whole world has seen yet again the malice and cruelty of Putin’s war of choice rooted in aggression,” he said.
Mr Austin said that the US had “spurred new investments” to meet Ukraine’s defence requirements as well as its own.
The US announced in late September an additional $1.1 billion security package for Ukraine, including 18 additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or Himars, to be produced and delivered in the coming months and years.
US president Joe Biden last week promised a new $625-million security assistance package to Ukraine, including four additional Himars. The announcement prompted a warning from Moscow that such a move risked a direct military clash between Russia and the West.
US security assistance to Ukraine since February now totals $16.8bn according to Mr Austin.
“I’m deeply grateful for our valued allies and partners that have continued to come forward with a package of their own,” he said.
The Netherlands said on Wednesday that they will deliver air defence missiles to Ukraine valued at €15m, following Russia’s air raids on Ukraine earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Germany’s Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht told reporters as she arrived in Brussels on Wednesday that a first IRIS-T air defence system promised to Kyiv by Germany has reached Ukraine, with three more of these systems to be supplied next year.
Mr Austin hailed the “military and moral power” of Ukraine. “That courage inspires us all,” he said.