Key developments on April 21:
- Stoltenberg ‘confident’ that Ukraine now ready to liberate more territories
- Zelensky: Ukraine ‘actively preparing’ new brigades and units for counteroffensive
- Austin: Allies deliver over 230 tanks to Ukraine over past few months
- Berlin, Warsaw, and Kyiv agree to open maintenance hub for Leopard 2 tanks in Poland
- Ukraine admits ‘some’ Russian advance on Bakhmut front
- Moscow court arrests Ukrainian military intelligence chief in absentia over ‘terrorist attacks’; Budanov praises it as ‘good indicator of our work’
NATO and President Volodymyr Zelensky signaled Ukraine’s readiness to launch an anticipated counteroffensive in the near future as the Ramstein conference kicked off on April 21.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who visited Zelensky in Kyiv a day prior to the 11th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Ramstein Air Base, said he is “confident” that Kyiv is ready to liberate more territories – without disclosing where or when.
“I'm confident that they will now be in a position to be able to liberate even more land," Stoltenberg said on the sidelines of the conference, adding that amongst the goals of the meeting was to ensure that Ukraine had "all the different capabilities, systems, supplies” for the counteroffensive operation.
Zelensky, who said he was waiting to hear about the conference’s results from Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, stressed on April 21 that preparation work is underway for a counteroffensive.
"We are actively preparing new brigades and units that will still prove themselves at the front,” Zelensky said in his evening address.
“The issues of their provision, training, integration into the general defense plan – we add important details every time at the Staff meetings,” he added, referring to the regularly-held briefings with top military officials, including Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhny.
The heightened anticipation of a counteroffensive comes as Kyiv has for months talked about a major spring operation, in which it said Ukrainian forces are expected to liberate more territories.
As representatives from around 50 countries met at the Ramstein base in Germany, Ukraine again pled for Western fighter jets and long-range rockets. Zelensky on April 20 asked NATO to “overcome the reluctance” of some alliance members regarding their possible transfer.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the April 21 meeting would focus on air defense, ammunition, and enablers.
"Ukraine urgently needs our help to shield its citizens, infrastructure and forces from Russia's missile threat," he said, without touching on the fighter jets – which Western allies have been reluctant to promise Ukraine over what is understood to be fears of escalation from Russia.
The representatives met in Germany as Ukraine acknowledged some Russian success in the country’s east.
Ukraine’s allies pledged new military packages for the war-torn country. Germany, Poland, and Ukraine signed the Letter of Intent to open a maintenance hub in Poland for Leopard 2 main battle tanks, Reznikov said.
More than 230 tanks were already delivered to Ukraine in 2023, Austin said, but there have been uncertainties over how Kyiv would maintain the equipment.
Austin said the Contact Group members have provided Ukraine with more than $55 billion worth of military aid since the U.S.-led group’s formation last April.
Tough Bakhmut front
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry on April 21 acknowledged that Russia had made further gains in “some” areas on the Bakhmut front, where a brutal war of attrition has raged since last summer.
Claiming that Russia is suffering “heavy losses,” Deputy Defense Ministry Hanna Maliar reiterated again that “decisions (regarding Bakhmut defense) are made according to military expediency.”
In a Telegram post, Maliar said that fierce fighting still raged for Bakhmut, the epicenter of the war, and that “the situation is tense, but under control.”
Moscow court arrests Budanov in absentia
Meanwhile, in Russia, a Moscow court on April 21 arrested Ukraine’s military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov in absentia over what it claimed were allegations of “organizing terrorist attacks.”
Budanov immediately reacted to the arrest warrant by applauding it as “a good indicator of our work,” referring to the work of Ukraine’s military intelligence. He added that it motivated him to work “even better,” in a commentary to the Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda.
While the Moscow court did not disclose which incident it deemed Budanov allegedly responsible for, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has earlier accused Budanov and Ukraine’s intelligence of organizing the Crimean Bridge blast.
The October blast partially collapsed the Kerch bridge that connects Russia with the occupied Crimean Peninsula. The bridge was built after Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014. Kyiv has repeatedly called the bridge an illegal construction and a legitimate military target.
While multiple Ukrainian officials hinted at Kyiv's involvement, the country officially denied Moscow’s accusation. Zelensky said later in October that “we definitely did not order that, as far as I know.”
The bridge was a strategic logistics artery for Russian troops in southern Ukrainian regions, such as Kherson Oblast, where a Ukrainian counteroffensive was underway.
Dealing with a humiliating blow, Moscow launched a months-long campaign of mass strikes against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure a few days later, killing scores of civilians and causing blackouts across the country.
Budanov said last October he was certain that the Crimean bridge would be destroyed once Ukraine liberates the Black Sea peninsula.