RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, GERMANY — After a daylong conference of more than 40 nations helping Ukraine with military and humanitarian aid, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said similar high-level meetings will be held each month going forward to react quickly to the changing nature of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
“We’re going to extend this forum beyond today,” Mr. Austin said, announcing the formation of what he called the Ukraine Contact Group. The group will be led by the United States and will include defense ministers and military chiefs, meeting either in person or virtually.
“The group will be a vehicle for nations of good will to intensify our efforts, coordinate our assistance, and focus on winning today’s fight and the struggles to come,” he said after the meeting Tuesday in Germany, at the Ramstein Air Base.
The group’s creation is just one outward sign of how the Biden administration is adjusting to a war that has continued far longer than originally estimated and has consumed enormous amounts of munitions and money. Since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, President Biden has authorized eight “drawdowns” of weapons from Pentagon stockpiles for Ukraine and authorized a total of $3.7 billion in total assistance to Kyiv.
Mr. Austin’s announcement comes at the end of a three-day trip that began with a potentially hazardous visit to Kyiv with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky. The journey, which involved driving into Ukraine from Poland and taking long train rides to and from Kyiv, was supposed to begin secretly but Mr. Zelensky spoke about it publicly on Saturday while the cabinet secretaries were flying to Poland.
After returning to Poland early Monday, Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin spoke in a warehouse filled with humanitarian aid as well as ammunition for the Soviet-designed weapons used by Ukrainian troops. Mr. Blinken indicated that all of it would be inside Ukraine within a day, as more military equipment continued to arrive for Kyiv.
That afternoon, Mr. Austin flew to Ramstein, where he was joined by Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to prepare for the daylong conference with other defense chiefs.
Opening the meeting, Mr. Austin praised the bravery of Ukrainian troops, took note of Russian atrocities against civilians and pledged his continued support for their country.
Speaking to Ukrainian defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, who was seated next to him, Mr. Austin said, “We’re all here because of Ukraine’s courage, because of the innocent civilians who have been killed, and because of the suffering that your people still endure.”
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has attempted to justify the invasion he ordered by falsely claiming that Ukraine is run by Nazis and that ethnic Russians in the Donbas region of Ukraine have been victims of genocide. Early attempts to seize the capital, Kyiv, were beaten back with heavy Russian losses, and the fighting is now concentrated in Donbas in the east and in southern Ukraine.
“Putin never imagined that the world would rally behind Ukraine so swiftly and surely,” Mr. Austin said to uniformed and civilian officials who assembled in a ballroom in the Ramstein officers club. He said “nobody is fooled” by Mr. Putin’s “phony claims on Donbas” and that “Russia’s invasion is indefensible and so are Russian atrocities.”
“We all start today from a position of moral clarity,” he said.
The meeting included representatives — some attending remotely — from more than 40 nations including Israel, Morocco and Qatar as well as NATO and the European Union.
With a protracted fight expected in eastern and southern Ukraine, the goal is to strengthen Ukraine’s military for the long haul, Mr. Austin said.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments
Locations for future meetings of the new group will likely rotate among the member nations, a senior U.S. defense official said. Its efforts will build on those already underway at U.S. European Command, where a task force led by a Navy rear admiral in Stuttgart coordinates much of Ukraine’s requests for assistance and arranges delivery of weapons and other matériel.
Mr. Austin stood by comments he made in Poland on Monday, when he said that the United States now wanted Russia “weakened” to the degree that it could not invade its neighbors in the future. He said that it was not a new stance.
“I think we’ve been pretty clear from the outset,” Mr. Austin said. “We do want to make it harder for Russia to threaten its neighbors and leave them less able to do that.”
Over 62 days of combat, he noted, Russia’s forces have suffered substantial casualties, losing equipment, expending many of their precision-guided munitions and enduring the sinking of the cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea.
“And so they are in fact, in terms of military capability, weaker than when it started,” Mr. Austin said. “It will be harder for them to replace some of this capability as they go forward because of the sanctions and the trade restrictions that have been placed on them.”
“So we would like to make sure, again, that they don’t have the same type of capability to bully their neighbors that we saw at the outset of this conflict.”