Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, made an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Thursday, where he stressed the need to help Ukraine boost its domestic weapons production in order to sustain Kyiv’s ongoing counteroffensive against Russian forces.
Despite an influx of sophisticated weapons provided by Western allies, progress in Ukraine’s counteroffensive has been slow. The front line has barely shifted over the past year, and a prolonged stalemate could weaken Western support for Ukraine. As its troops burn through ammunition, Ukraine has been drumming up pledges of new arms while simultaneously looking to ramp up its domestic defense industry.
Mr. Stoltenberg spoke in Kyiv just a day before Ukraine plans to hold a forum with international military contractors. The event has been billed as a place to discuss weapons technology and how to increase production inside Ukraine.
“It will be an important opportunity for Ukrainian companies to forge new partnerships with the industry across the alliance and beyond,” Mr. Stoltenberg told a news conference with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Thursday about the forum. “The stronger Ukraine becomes, the closer we come to ending Russia’s aggression.”
News of Mr. Stoltenberg’s visit, his second since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, came amid a flurry of visits this week by other Western defense officials.
Sébastien Lecornu, France’s defense minister, was also in Kyiv on Thursday, where he visited a memorial to soldiers killed in the war. And officials said that Grant Shapps, Britain’s new defense secretary had met with Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv to discuss ongoing defense support and bolstering Ukraine’s air defenses.
“I am committed to maintaining the U.K.’s military support — particularly as the freezing winter weather approaches,” Mr. Shapps said, according to a British government statement. It noted that Mr. Shapps had traveled to Kyiv on Wednesday and also met with his Ukrainian counterpart.
It was not immediately clear if the three officials would attend Ukraine’s first International Defense Industries Forum, which Mr. Stoltenberg said would take place on Friday.
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, said the event would bring together representatives of 165 military contractors from 26 nations.
Britain has committed several billion dollars in military assistance to Ukraine, the third biggest supporter after the United States and Germany, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
France, by contrast, has committed about 530 million euros, or about $560 million, in military aid to Ukraine — including long-range cannons, armored combat vehicles and rocket launchers.
Ukraine’s military said on Thursday that Russia had launched a large drone attack overnight targeting southern and central parts of the country, the latest barrage in a campaign intended partly to destroy military and energy infrastructure, but also apparently aimed at terrorizing and demoralizing civilians.
Ukraine’s Air Force said 34 of the 44 drones had been shot down. The fate of the other 10 drones was unclear, but there were no immediate reports of casualties or damaged buildings. The claims had not been independently verified.
“The attack was massive, but the work of the air defense was also quite effective,” Natalia Humeniuk, a spokeswoman for the Ukrainian southern command, told national television on Thursday.
Andriy Raykovych, the head of the Kropyvnytskyi regional military administration in central Ukraine, said that there had been “hits” in the area as a result of the attacks, without elaborating further.
The Ukrainian officials said the attack involved Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones, a powerful weapon that Russia has used repeatedly in Ukraine with devastating effect, including destroying warehouses in the south and damaging residential buildings in Kyiv, the capital.
In an effort to undermine Russia’s ability to deploy the drones, the U.S. Treasury Department issued sanctions on Wednesday targeting several companies and people in Iran, Hong Kong, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for their roles in enabling Iran to acquire an electrical device used in the drones. The sanctions also prohibit U.S. citizens and companies from conducting any transactions with the designated parties.
Russia started to use the Shahed-136 drones after its forces failed to achieve air superiority during the war last year. The drones, which can fly autonomously, give Moscow the ability to attack without risk to its personnel and have a reported range of up to 1,500 miles, meaning they can be launched far from the front lines. The weapons are small propeller-driven aircraft equipped with precision targeting. They carry a warhead of about 80 pounds and explode on impact.
Western allies have rushed more than $90 billion worth of weapons to Ukraine since the start of the war last year. Now the race is on to ramp up military manufacturing inside Ukraine.
On Friday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said he had sealed a “long-term agreement” with the United States for joint weapons production during his meeting with President Biden in Washington the previous day.
A White House statement issued after the two presidents met last week was more circumspect than Mr. Zelensky’s declaration. It said the Biden administration would host a conference in the coming months “to explore options for joint ventures and co-production.”
Regardless, joint production would be potentially important for Ukraine’s economy and lucrative for defense industry contractors.
The United States would be one among a pool of allies and foreign manufacturers that are looking to gain a financial foothold on Ukraine’s battlefield. Britain, Germany and others also are moving to bolster Ukraine’s defense industry, including by building joint manufacturing facilities in the country.
One of the first out of the gate was Rheinmetall, the German-based weapons production giant, which 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 light guns in Ukraine, though it did not make clear when that would start.
U.S. officials see the efforts as a step toward weaning Ukraine off the shipments of Western weapons it receives on a near-weekly basis, especially as political support in Washington and other world capitals for continuing the costly donations threatens to wane.
“For all of the armored vehicles, for all of the Bradleys, Strykers, all of the arms that Ukraine needs, their national defense production act really has to be implemented more aggressively,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the Armed Services Committee, said in an interview last month.
Otherwise, “our stockpiles and Ukraine’s supplies are going to be diminished dramatically and potentially exhausted,” Senator Blumenthal said. He noted that production sites would need to be protected, including with adequate air defenses, but “we’re going to be building those factories in Ukraine so that they have a much more dependable source.”
Last year, Ukraine was the world’s largest arms importer — a direct result of the military aid it has received since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks weapons transfers.
Ukraine and Russia repeatedly clashed during hearings this week over whether the United Nations’ highest court has jurisdiction to hear a complaint that Moscow abused the 1948 Genocide Convention to justify its invasion of Ukraine last year.
Kyiv is asking the court to order Russia to halt its attacks, even though it is unlikely Moscow would comply.
Ukraine brought its complaint to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the United Nations’ highest legal body, shortly after the invasion. The complaint said that Russia had falsely accused the Ukrainian government of carrying out a genocide against Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine and then had used the accusation as the pretext for launching its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
Over five days of hearings that ended on Wednesday, delegates for Ukraine said there had been no acts of genocide against its citizens before the invasion and accused Russia of using disinformation and of twisting the Genocide Convention’s meaning. They asked the court, which has the mandate to deal with legal disputes between nations, to use its jurisdiction to help end the “illegal war.” The hearings were attended by international lawyers and diplomats.
It was Ukraine’s second attempt to seek the court’s help. The court’s judges had already issued an order to Russia to stop its military action in March 2022. Moscow snubbed the court, declining to attend those hearings and flouting the court order.
This time, Russia sent a large delegation. Some diplomats said Moscow’s presence reflected a perceived legal threat and a political calculation as its diplomats campaign to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council next month. The council expelled Russia last year after the invasion.
Addressing the bench of 16 judges in the case, lawyers for Russia urged the court to drop the complaint. They said Ukraine’s arguments were “hopelessly flawed” and that Russia had based its actions in Ukraine not on genocide but on its right to self-defense, as defined by the United Nations Charter. There was no dispute over genocide, the Russian side said, so there was no case.
Russia’s arguments are not likely to prevail, international lawyers said, in good part because of statements made by President Vladimir V. Putin and senior Russian officials.
For instance, lawyers for Ukraine repeatedly referred to a televised speech by Mr. Putin on Feb. 24, 2022, the day of the invasion, in which he announced “a special military operation” in eastern parts of Ukraine. The purpose of the military operation, Mr. Putin said, was “to protect people who have been subjected to abuse and genocide by the Kyiv regime for eight years.”
Russian lawyers brushed aside Mr. Putin’s words as a political speech, which they argued was not the same as invoking the Genocide Convention.
Although the hearings revolved around jurisdiction only, lawyers and diplomats saw them as important because the outcome could impact the intentions of a group of countries to create a special international tribunal for Russian aggression and war crimes in Ukraine. Exceptionally, 32 governments presented submissions siding with Ukraine’s argument. The group included most European Union countries, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
It may take several months, or more, for the judges to decide if they can proceed with the case.
Harold Koh, a law professor at Yale University who is on Ukraine’s legal team, urged the judges to act quickly. “The jurisdictional questions before you are neither close, nor are they difficult,” he told the court. “And while you deliberate, the world awaits a speedy hearing on the merits.”
A spokesman for Ukraine’s Army said on Wednesday that some Wagner mercenaries had returned to the front lines in eastern Ukraine after relocating to Belarus for the past three months in the wake of the group’s unsuccessful mutiny against the Kremlin.
The Wagner founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, was killed in a plane crash in August. Though the cause of the crash has not yet been determined, many Western officials have suggested that it served as payback for the brief, late June uprising Mr. Prigozhin led against Russia’s military leadership. His death raised questions about what would become of his mercenary forces, which played a crucial role in taking the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and in furthering Russian objectives in Africa.
On Wednesday, Ilya Yevlash, the spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Grouping of Forces, told the Ukrainian broadcaster RBC-Ukraine that about 500 Wagner mercenaries had arrived in Ukraine from Belarus and were being deployed to the front lines. He said the returning fighters had renegotiated contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defense.
“These individuals are indeed among the most well-trained in the Russian army, but they will not become a game-changer,” the broadcaster quoted Mr. Yevlash as saying.
It was not immediately possible to verify Mr. Yevlash’s assertions, which appeared to be based on Ukrainian intelligence. A recent CNN report quoted a Ukrainian soldier as saying that Wagner troops had returned to eastern Ukraine.
The bulk of the Wagner forces that had fought in Ukraine and taken part in the aborted mutiny moved to Belarus in July in a deal negotiated by the Belarusian leader, Alexander G. Lukashenko, to end the rebellion. The Wagner fighters’ presence in Belarus has raised alarms in neighboring Poland and spurred worries in Ukraine that they might be used to open a new front in the country’s north.
Polish authorities estimated in August that at least 4,000 of the Wagner mercenaries were in Belarus. Ukrainian border authorities have said the number is greater, specifying at least 6,000.
Mr. Yevlash told RBC-Ukraine that the camps in Belarus were being disbanded, with some of the Wagner troops being sent to Ukraine and some being deployed to Africa.
Mr. Prigozhin’s death left the future of the Wagner group up in the air. U.S. and Western officials have said the Kremlin holds that the organization’s formidable military prowess and its ties to African governments made it too valuable to dissolve or neglect, despite the June uprising. But some current and former officials believe that some Wagner members would oppose being absorbed into Russia’s military and would instead support Mr. Prigozhin’s son, Pavel Prigozhin, who is in his 20s, taking over the company’s operations.
The U.S. Treasury Department issued sanctions on Wednesday targeting what officials described as a global network involved in supplying parts for Iranian drones, the latest round of U.S. penalties aimed at choking Russia’s access to military supply chains and equipment.
The Treasury placed sanctions on five companies and two people based in Iran, China, Hong Kong, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for their roles in enabling Iran to acquire servo motors, sometimes spelled servomotors — which assist in steering — for Iran’s Shahed drones. Iran supplies Russia with the drones, which U.S. officials often refer to as unmanned aerial vehicles, or U.A.V.s.
The drones are “a key tool” for Russian attacks in Ukraine, including those that target Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure, Brian E. Nelson, the Treasury Department’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
“One of the servomotors procured by the network designated today was recovered in the remnants of a Russia-operated Shahed-136 that was recently shot down in Ukraine,” the statement said.
An Iran-based company, Pishgam Electronic Safeh Company, and its C.E.O., Hamid Reza Janghorbani, were designated in the statement as having helped supply the devices to Iran’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. A Hong Kong-based company, Hongkong Himark Electron Model Limited, and one of its leaders, Fan Yang, were accused of fulfilling Iranian orders for $1 million worth of servo motors. One company based in the United Arab Emirates, Farhad Ghaedi Goods Wholesalers, was designated along with two Turkish companies as having facilitated financial transactions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars that supported Iran’s procurement of the devices.
The sanctions prohibit U.S. citizens and companies from conducting any transactions with the designated parties. Any of the network’s holdings based in the United Stations will be blocked and reported to U.S. authorities.
U.S. officials have said that Western sanctions and controls have forced Russia to turn to North Korea and Iran for arms, and the Treasury has issued several rounds of sanctions against companies and individuals from both countries, including nine specifically targeting Iranian-made drones.
Though Iran said last year that it would not provide either Russia or Ukraine with military equipment, it said it had confirmed a drone deal with Russia that predated the invasion of Ukraine last February. U.S. officials said Russia received its first shipment of Iranian-made military drones last August. The drones were confirmed on the battlefield, striking energy and civilian infrastructure, later in the month.