NATO is pitching weapons making as economic development for war-torn Ukraine, and it could be lucrative for Western arms makers.
The chief of NATO and the defense ministers of Britain and France have paid surprise visits to Kyiv, announced on Thursday, in a show of continued solidarity, even as they emphasize the goal of pumping up weapons production within Ukraine.
Conscious of softening Western support for the expensive business of arming Ukraine, officials are billing expansion of Ukraine’s own arms industry as needed economic development for a war-tattered country.
It is also a potentially lucrative prospect for Western weapons makers, albeit a risky one in a country bombarded daily by Russia; Moscow’s forces launched dozens of exploding drones into Ukraine overnight, the Ukrainian government said on Thursday, but there were no reports of casualties or serious damage.
“It will be an important opportunity for Ukrainian companies to forge new partnerships with the industry across the alliance and beyond,” Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary general, said at a news conference with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Thursday. “The stronger Ukraine becomes, the closer we come to ending Russia’s aggression.”
The visits came a day before a forum with international military contractors, convened by the Ukrainian government, which hopes they will join in developing the industrial capacity to build and repair weapons in Ukraine. Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign affairs minister, said the event would bring together representatives of 165 companies from 26 nations.
Western countries are having trouble meeting their arms commitments to Ukraine, notably for artillery ammunition, and are depleting their own stocks faster than they can be replenished. Military industries that have shrunk since the Cold War have struggled to retool and find adequate supplies of materials to ramp up production to their full capacity — and even that is not enough. The U.S. military has signed contracts for companies to build two new production lines for making artillery shells, and another for filling them with explosives.
After meeting with President Biden last week, Mr. Zelensky said he had sealed a “long-term agreement” with the United States for joint weapons production, but a White House statement was more circumspect, saying that the Biden administration would host a conference in the coming months “to explore options for joint ventures and co-production.”
Mr. Zelensky’s penchant for ambitious pronouncements was on view again on Thursday, when he said of his meeting with Mr. Stoltenberg, “Today it is already a conversation between de facto allies and it is only a matter of time before Ukraine becomes a de jure member of the Alliance.”
How realistic that is remains unclear. Though NATO has stated that Ukrainian membership is a long-term goal, Western officials have said it is still a far-off prospect, and cannot be seriously considered until after the war.
The British government revealed on Thursday that Grant Shapps, its new defense secretary, had met a day earlier with Mr. Zelensky and the new Ukrainian defense minister, Rustem Umerov, to discuss military support, in particular bolstering Ukraine’s air defenses.
Mr. Zelensky also met on Thursday with Sébastien Lecornu, France’s defense minister, who made clear that development of Ukrainian weapons manufacturing was a commercial opportunity as well as a military goal, and told reporters that he had come accompanied by some 20 representatives of the French defense industry in fields as diverse as robots, drones, artillery and artificial intelligence.
“It’s also a way for us to stay the course and establish French interests in Kyiv and Ukraine over the long term,” he said. “We know that this war is going to last,” he said.
The idea is that over time, Mr. Lecornu said, there will be fewer outright gifts of weapons to Ukraine and more sales — sometimes with subsidies. In December, Mr. Lecornu said that France had launched a 200 million euro ($211 million) “innovative fund” allowing Ukraine to purchase weapons from French industrials.
Some arms makers are already at work toward establishing themselves in Ukraine. Rheinmetall, the German-based weapons production giant, announced in May that it was teaming up with Ukraine’s state-owned Ukroboronprom to build armored vehicles and tanks inside Ukraine.
In late August, Britain-based BAE Systems said it had signed an agreement to explore manufacturing 105-millimeter artillery in Ukraine, though it did not make clear when that would start.
Public opinion polls in the United States and Europe show that majorities support continuing to arm Ukraine, but by far smaller margins than early in the war. Mr. Lecornu’s statements reflect the ambivalence of the French government, which has not been a major donor to Ukraine. And Slovakia will hold a general election on Saturday in which the leading candidate to become prime minister opposes arms for Ukraine and rails against NATO.
The governments of many of Ukraine’s biggest military and financial backers, including Germany and Britain, have shown no signs of second-guessing that commitment. But in the United States, where the Biden administration has been steadfast in support, and has asked Congress to authorize an additional $24 billion in Ukraine spending, a small but vocal and influential group in Congress has questioned or outright opposed continued aid, which is one of the issues holding up agreement on military spending.
Nations around the world and the European Union as a body had given about $230 billion worth of aid to Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, including financial support for its government and humanitarian aid, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
Of that, about $90 billion has been military support through the end of July, including $42 billion from the United States. The next-biggest military backer has been Germany, at $17 billion, followed by Britain, approaching $7 billion.
Some small countries, like Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark, have given enormous sums for their size, while much larger ones, like Italy, France and Spain, have given far less.
Victoria Kim and John Ismay contributed reporting.