Day and night, truck convoys rumble through once quiet Polish border towns and villages. Giant military transport planes land several times an hour on the single runway at a local airport. Their cargo: weapons for the Ukrainian forces fighting to beat back Russia’s invading army.
The U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have been racing for weeks to deliver antitank missiles, air-defense batteries and other armaments in one of the largest international arms transfers since World War II. Hundreds of millions of dollars of weaponry has already been shipped.
Now, pressure is growing to ramp up the pace further, as Ukraine says it is running out of weapons and ammunition as it fights to blunt Russian advances and counterattack. Antitank and antiaircraft missiles are in especially short supply, Ukrainian defense officials say. During this week’s NATO summit and meeting of the European Union, President Biden is expected to press allies to give Ukraine more, particularly air defense systems, U.S. officials said.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Britain, Vadym Prystaiko, on Wednesday said stocks of some key weapons could soon run out and that Ukrainian forces urgently needed long-range weaponry. “We didn’t have enough in the first place. Running out of weaponry will be seen in the week to come,” Mr. Prystaiko said in a television interview. “Tomorrow, President Zelensky will talk to NATO to see how we can replenish our stocks,” he said.
Western security officials say their strategy initially envisaged equipping a nascent Ukrainian insurgency—recalling the transfer of weapons to mujahedeen fighters who defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan—that would employ guerrilla tactics against Russian occupiers.
Instead, because Ukraine’s military has managed to keep Moscow’s forces at bay in much of the country, the task has become equipping a regular army engaged in a large-scale conventional war.
“The Ukrainians are expending a lot of ordnance, and this is more than we anticipated,” said a Western security official. “We are trying to step up the flow of weapons to meet that new requirement and there are constant shortages.”
Ukraine says keeping the flow moving is central to its war effort. NATO allies have debated which systems would provoke an escalation from Russia, ruling out fighter jets, for example.
While U.S. and European officials said they are moving as quickly as possible, some also fear that some of the weapons systems could end up in Russian hands or circulate for years on the black market. Some European nations are reluctant to provide more arms they fear could fuel a war on the continent. And U.S. officials, in the run-up to the Feb. 24 invasion, said they didn’t plan to support Ukraine with arms for a protracted period.
Meanwhile, Moscow has warned that it considers arms shipments legitimate targets. “Any cargo moving into Ukrainian territory which we believe is carrying weapons would be fair game,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week.
Russia hit a Ukrainian military base near the Polish border with cruise missiles on March 13, killing at least 35 people. Russia’s air force, however, doesn’t control the skies over Ukraine and so far doesn’t appear to have hit any arms consignments en route.
The main artery for the weapons transfer is the sleepy southern Polish town of Rzeszow. The local airport normally caters to budget airlines ferrying travelers from elsewhere in Europe. Now, passenger jets there are dwarfed by giant C-130 military transports. Patriot missile batteries stand guard near the runway.
Ground handlers pull cargoes covered in camouflage tarps from the bellies of planes. On a recent day, soldiers from the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division stood by the runway as other personnel swiftly unloaded a Turkish Gulfstream G450, which didn’t appear on ordinary flight-tracking websites. Turkey has supplied armed drones that Ukraine has used to attack Russian armored columns and other targets.
The arrivals terminal was surrounded by military vehicles, shipping containers and mounds of equipment that stretched the length of several football fields. At the airport’s northern perimeter, behind a row of trees, a line of trucks with Ukrainian plates waited to be loaded. American soldiers based next to a Holiday Inn shuttled back and forth into town to do shopping and pick up takeout. Pentagon officials said they weren’t discussing the deployment in detail to the media.
Closer to the border, daylight convoys still pass through main frontier crossings but are increasingly supplemented by nighttime deliveries through border villages. For such shipments, “you’re only using low-key civilian vehicles and trucks,” said a British contractor.
“I don’t know if I’m supposed to tell you,” said Marek, a 61-year-old Polish construction worker who declined to give his surname and lives about 500 yards from the Ukrainian border. “It’s kind of a secret, but at night lots of aid goes across.” He said he regularly sees small convoys passing an ordinarily fenced-off border crossing nearby.
Not long after, Polish border guards riding an ATV over gravel roads intercepted a pair of Wall Street Journal reporters and encouraged them to leave.
Local officials say the increased military deployment is reassuring, but say they worry it could make Rzeszow a target. Polish farmers are putting land up for sale, nervous their property is too close to the front line. Last week, the town’s mayor, Konrad Fijolek, told constituents to check the living conditions in bomb shelters built during the Cold War.
“We have to be ready for different scenarios: The Russian military is just across the border,” Mr. Fijolek said. “You never know whether they will launch rockets and whether they will land here.”
On Wednesday, German officials said they would deliver another 1,700 Strela antiaircraft missiles, after delivering 500 last week. The Soviet-made weapons, inherited from former East Germany, have been languishing in military depots for decades.
Berlin originally said it would send 2,700 pieces of the hand-held weapons, but around 500 proved to be dysfunctional. On Wednesday, Sweden said it would send 5,000 antitank weapons.
In the days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. allotted $350 million to fund weapons such as Stingers and Javelins to Ukraine, and finished delivering that tranche within the past week, U.S. defense officials said. Earlier this month, Congress approved another $200 million of military assistance, and the Biden administration has said it would spend another $800 million after that. The U.S. is expected to deliver 1,400 Stingers and 4,600 Javelins through this year’s funding requests.
Before the invasion, weapons manufacturers weren’t geared up to make antitank and antiaircraft arms at a wartime pace. While the U.S. had 13,000 Stingers in its stockpile before the invasion, there were no plans to produce more en masse, U.S. officials said. Militaries in Europe that have given their Stingers and antitank missiles to Ukraine now want to refill depleted stocks, creating competition for new units rolling off the assembly line.
“Ready-made stocks are not inexhaustible,” said a defense contractor in Poland. “It isn’t the arsenal of democracy where refrigerator plants are also making airplanes. No. There is a very limited number of production facilities. You can maybe speed up some stuff, but it’s not like you can suddenly open up two or three new production lines.”
Now, as the warfare appears to emulate World War II, defense contractors are racing to ramp up the supplies of antiaircraft and antitank weaponry and ammunition. Central European defense ministers say they have set up a hotline into Ukraine, so that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s military chiefs can order former Soviet equipment from their stocks.
The Czech Republic has given Kyiv’s Defense Ministry a list of $500 million of gear in Czech warehouses, and says the U.S. has signaled its willingness to buy much of it, for onward donation to Ukraine. The items on the list range from ordinary machine gun ammunition to antiaircraft missiles capable of intercepting war planes at high altitudes, all of it ready to be delivered within four days of an order.
“The Ukrainians are choosing from it on a daily basis,” said Czech Deputy Defense Minister Tomáš Kopečný. Several times, he added, Russian operatives posing as European or American companies have tried to buy the weaponry, before it can be dispatched eastward into Ukraine.
“We have instructed all the companies in the Czech Republic just to produce at their maximum capacity, because the moment they roll it from the factory, we take it, and we ship it there,” he said.
Last week, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said her country had already hit the limit on how many weapons it could ship to Ukraine. A senior official in the Defense Ministry said Germany had plenty of weapons in its stocks it could send, but the real shortage was of political will.
“For 20 years, most Western countries were not investing enough in their own supply lines, their own militaries, and now we pay the price,” said Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks.