Western governments have placed air defence systems “at the top of the list” of military aid to Ukraine as Russia gears up for winter attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure, sources have told The Telegraph.
The shift in strategy was pushed by Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, at a recent meeting of Kyiv’s supporters at the Ramstein air base in Germany, according to a senior US official.
“Air defence, air defence, air defence… a key focus for all of the allies that are providing security assistance,” the official said.
They warned that Russians were “big fans” of “starving or freezing Ukrainians to death”.
The suggestion the West could be pivoting its deliveries comes despite Ukraine publicly demanding more ammunition to help sustain the counter-offensive in the south ahead of the winter months.
“They [Ukraine] are thinking long and hard about how to use the capabilities they have, but we do want to try and move more air defence into Ukraine in the weeks and months ahead,” the source said.
Lt Gen Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence agency, recently warned he was braced for another attempt by Moscow to plunge the country into the cold and dark as temperatures drop.
The spymaster said his agency had planned a deterrence and retaliation strategy to counter Russia’s expected long-range campaign.
Russia adopted the tactic last year in an attempt to freeze Ukraine into submission during the long winter months.
Western leaders say the strikes are a war crime, while Kyiv accused Moscow of a campaign of “energy terror”.
Nearly half of Ukraine’s energy system was damaged in the Russian drone and missile attacks last winter.
At times, millions of people had no heating or electricity because of outages triggered by the strikes.
Last week Ukrenergo, Ukraine’s power grid operator, announced the first mass strike on energy infrastructure by Russia in six months as its long-range campaign appeared to start.
Vadym Skybytskyi, a Ukrainian intelligence official, recently warned that the attacks on the network would likely start ramping up early next month.
Until now, the West’s donations to Ukraine have focused on the artillery and ammunition needed by its armed forces to expel the Russian occupiers from the country.
But with less than a month left of fighting before wet weather is expected to slow down the counter-offensive, Western plans have changed.
‘Freezing Ukrainians to death’
Western officials argue Ukraine will need more air defence systems after the current pieces of equipment were stretched between protecting Ukrainian cities, grain shipment infrastructure and soldiers on the front lines.
“We saw the way the Russians behaved last winter. They’re big fans, tragically, of either starving or freezing Ukrainians to death in the colder months,” the US official said.
“We believe that we may see similar behaviour this winter so we want to shift into gear.”
The UK’s Ministry of Defence recently said Moscow had reduced expenditure rates of air-launched cruise missiles, while its leaders had highlighted efforts to increase rates of production.
“There is a realistic possibility that Russia will again focus these weapons against Ukrainian infrastructure targets over the winter,” the update said.
Complex air-defence network
Ukraine has developed a complex air-defence network consisting of old Soviet-era equipment and high-tech developments donated by Western governments.
Western officials have credited Kyiv with developing a “plug and play” system under which ageing S-300 launchers are used alongside US-made Patriots to protect the country from Russian bombardment.
There has been a focus on delivering Western systems because of the dwindling supplies of available missiles for hardware made in the Soviet-era.
But modern surface-to-air systems are particularly costly, with analysts estimating the price of a Patriot battery at over £900 million, while a German-made system is slightly cheaper at around £120 million.
Some of Kyiv’s allies have warned they are unable to part with any more air defences and the accompanying ammunition because it would put their own safety at risk.
A US official said warnings like this were usual but countries say “we can dig a little deeper, reach into our pockets and find more”.
“What allies have shown us time and time again is their ability to dig deeper,” the source said.
“You heard early on, in the first few months, ‘we’ve really looked at everything we have, we think we’ve given everything we have’, the next month the same country shows up and says ‘surprise, we think we can do more’.”
On his recent visit to Washington, Volodymyr Zelesnky, Ukraine’s president, announced a deal to jointly produce air-defence systems with the US.
Details of the agreement are still being kept tightly guarded, but Mr Zelensky said it would contribute to Ukraine’s future security and boost its war-stricken economy.