BRUSSELS — With Russia bearing down on a strategically important city in eastern Ukraine, NATO defense ministers gathered in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss ways of continuing to provide military support to Kyiv, whose forces are expending ammunition faster than allies can produce it.
As Russia continues to make grinding gains — particularly around the fiercely contested eastern city of Bakhmut — and the war nears its first anniversary, Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said in opening remarks that the meeting was taking place at “a critical time for our security.”
Mr. Stoltenberg said the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group, the larger group of countries supporting Ukraine militarily and financially, would meet later on Tuesday to “address the urgent needs for increased support to Ukraine.”
Ukrainian officials have said that they are in dire need of more Soviet-caliber ammunition for the T-72 tanks they already possess in large numbers, as well as NATO-caliber artillery shells to work with allied-supplied heavy guns. Before the meeting, Mr. Stoltenberg said that the war “is consuming an enormous amount of munitions and depleting allied stockpiles,” and that allies would discuss how to expand production in order to support Ukraine and replenish their own arsenals.
“The current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production,” he said. “This puts our defense industries under strain.”
Even as NATO countries try to ramp up manufacturing, waiting times to secure new large-caliber ammunition have grown from 12 months to 28 months, even if contracts are signed immediately, Mr. Stoltenberg said.
The Pentagon is already racing to increase production of artillery shells by 500 percent within two years, pushing conventional ammunition production to levels not seen since the Korean War.
Ukrainian and Russian troops are firing thousands of howitzer rounds at each other every day, U.S. officials say, along a front line more than 600 miles long.
The two-day meeting, and the meeting with the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, are part of a series of diplomatic gatherings this week.
“This contact group has made it clear that we will support Ukraine’s fight for freedom over the long haul and help Ukraine hold, and advance, during the spring counteroffensive,” Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said on Tuesday, referring to the long expected renewed push by Ukrainian forces as the war enters a new phase.
High on the list of Ukraine’s requests has been Western fighter jets — a topic that was certain to be discussed, Mr. Stoltenberg said, even if approval to provide them, let alone deliver them, seems distant.
“The urgent need now is to deliver what has always been promised,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. The U.S. and several other NATO allies have committed to supplying tanks to aid Kyiv’s war effort, but they are expected to take months to arrive.
“The issue of aircraft is not the most urgent issue now,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. “But it is an ongoing discussion.”
President Biden said last month that his administration would not provide American F-16s. And while Britain has said it is willing to begin training Ukrainian pilots, it would not be able to supply Typhoon or Tornado fighter jets on its own.
Both aircraft were joint projects with Italy, Spain and Germany, and export to Ukraine would require other countries to sign off. Like Mr. Biden, Olaf Scholz, the chancellor of Germany, has said that he opposes supplying fighter jets to Ukraine.
The NATO defense ministers were also expected to discuss preparations and goals for the alliance’s summit in July, when the alliance will grapple with replacing Mr. Stoltenberg, whose extended term runs out at the end of September. Mr. Stoltenberg has made it clear through his spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, that after nearly nine years in the job, he would not seek another extension.
Matthew Mpoke Bigg contributed reporting.