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International officials meet in Germany to coordinate weapons deliveries for Ukraine

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now to the war in Ukraine - Russia's military has admitted one of its fighter jets had what they call an accidental discharge over a Russian city near the border with Ukraine. This as defense leaders from the U.S. and Europe and elsewhere meet to try to bolster Ukraine's arsenal. NPR's Joanna Kakissis joins us from Kyiv. Joanna, thanks for being with us.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Happy to join you today, Scott.

SIMON: And what do we know about this accidental bombing?

KAKISSIS: So, yeah, according to Russia's state media, there was this huge explosion on Thursday evening in Belgorod, a Russian city of about 400,000 near the Ukrainian border, and at least three people were injured, and the explosion just badly damaged surrounding buildings. And yes, the Russian Defense Ministry later admitted in a statement that a supersonic fighter jet had indeed accidentally bombed the city. So what Russians usually bomb and shell in this area is the Ukrainian region of Kharkiv, which is about 25 miles southwest of Belgorod.

SIMON: Of course, western allies of Ukraine have continued to try to help Ukraine defend itself from those attacks. And defense leaders from those nations met at the Ramstein U.S. Air Base in Germany on Friday. What are they trying to achieve?

KAKISSIS: So these defense leaders are in what's called the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, and their goal is to help Ukraine defend itself. This group meets every month and has provided a total of around $55 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. And this includes badly needed ammunition as well as heavy weapons like Leopard and Abrams tanks. And U.S. officials say 31 of those Abrams tanks I mentioned above could reach Ukraine this fall, and Ukrainian soldiers could start training on them within weeks.

SIMON: Abrams tanks are famously powerful and lethal. What sort of difference could they make in this conflict?

KAKISSIS: So Ukraine's defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told us earlier this year when the U.S. promised those Abrams tanks that they could be a game changer because not only is Ukraine trying to reclaim occupied territory, it's also trying to defend itself as Russia tries to take even more Ukrainian territory in the east. But the arrival of the Abrams and the training to use them will come probably too late for Ukraine's planned counteroffensive because it's supposed to happen sometime this spring or in summer. There's also concern that Russia is set to ramp up its air attacks. And so Reznikov says Ukraine needs F-16s. And Ukraine's Air Force spokesman, Yurii Ihnat, told us recently that Ukrainian forces see F-16 fighter jets as the best way to protect Ukrainian airspace.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YURII IHNAT: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: So he's saying that they can shoot down almost anything, you know, incoming missiles and drones, as well as enemy planes and helicopters. And they can also hit ground targets.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIREN)

KAKISSIS: And as if on cue, while we were talking to him, an air raid alert actually went off on his phone. So, you know, you can hear it here. And he just smiled wearily and shrugged as if to say, you know, I rest my case.

SIMON: Joanna, the secretary general of NATO this week said that Ukraine belongs in their security alliance. Is that likely, that Ukraine will become a NATO member?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. So I think the short answer, at least right now, is yes, eventually. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Ukraine on Thursday, and it's his first visit since Russia's full-scale invasion began. And he said that, you know, Ukraine's rightful place is in NATO. However, he talked about a membership process that's going to take years.

And President Zelenskyy says, why should it take so long? We are, you know, not just defending our independence and existence as a nation, but we're also buffering you, our allies in the West, from Russian aggression. Zelenskyy wants membership talks to start as soon as this July. But of course, this does not sit well with Kremlin officials who say one of the reasons Russia invaded Ukraine was to prevent it from joining NATO.

SIMON: NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thanks so much, Joanna.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.