DOBRA, Slovakia — Driving back to his village near the Ukrainian border last Thursday, the mayor had to stop to let a train pass and assumed he wouldn’t have long to wait. But the flat cars, piled high with military equipment, kept coming. He waited almost half an hour.
“It was a very long train, much longer than usual,” recalls Mikolas Csoma, the mayor of Dobra, a formerly sleepy village in eastern Slovakia that in the past month has become a major artery bringing weapons and ammunition to Ukraine by rail. transports. from the west.
The train that made the ride home from Mr. Csomo’s delay was not only unusually long, but marked a particular escalation in Western efforts to help Ukraine defend itself. It carried an air defense system consisting of 48 surface-to-air missiles, four launchers and radars to guide the missiles to their targets, which in Ukraine means Russian warplanes and missiles.
As Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin pledges to fight the war to “complete completion” and his forces regroup for an anticipated attack in eastern Ukraine, NATO nations, including the United States, are scrambling to raise arms. let it flow and the defense of the country.
Strengthening Ukraine’s long-range air defense capabilities is considered particularly crucial. Ukraine already had its own S-300 and other air defense systems, but some have been destroyed, giving Russia a great deal of freedom to hit Ukrainian targets from the air with combat aircraft and cruise missiles.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, increasingly desperate to reverse this imbalance, has repeatedly urged NATO to “close the skies over Ukraine” by imposing a no-fly zone. But NATO is unwilling to send its own warplanes to Ukraine.
Instead, the United States offered Slovakia, a fellow NATO member, a replacement battery of American-made Patriot missiles if it “donated” its aging S-300 system to Ukraine.
Jaroslav Nad, the Slovak defense minister and a fanatical supporter of Ukraine, said it would have been unthinkable before the Russian invasion for his country to send large quantities of even basic weapons across the eastern border for free, let alone an old but still powerful one. Soviet-made anti-aircraft system.
“But this is the new reality of the world,” he said in an interview in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. “We are a frontline state. We have war on our border and more than 330,000 Ukrainians are coming to our country. The paradigm is completely different now.”
Mr Putin, he said, “is equal to Hitler” and must be stopped in Ukraine before he can move further west. “Ukraine is literally fighting for our future,” he said.
Like Slovakia, other countries are steadily expanding the scope of their military aid. The No. 2 Pentagon official met in Washington on Wednesday with America’s top military contractors to discuss how ready they are to replenish supplies and what new capabilities to send to Ukraine.
The meeting, and a new package of weapons, including artillery and ammunition, is partly intended by the Biden administration to assuage criticism that it is not doing enough for Ukraine and is too hesitant to send long-range weapon systems.
Other NATO members are already sending Ukraine bigger and better weapons than before, including T-72 tanks and short-range air defense systems from the Czech Republic.
The S-300 system from Slovakia is the largest item a NATO country has shipped to date. It was previously deployed in Nitra, a city east of Bratislava on the other side of the country.
From there, it was transported by truck and train to Dobra, where the state-controlled railway yard has Soviet rail tracks, wider than the standard in Europe, meaning it can run trains to and from Ukraine, which also has Soviet tracks.
Other major items now under discussion for transport to Ukraine via Slovakia include obsolete MIG-29 fighter jets and advanced self-propelled howitzers called Zuzana 2. A plan for Ukraine to send hundreds of damaged tanks is also under consideration. some of which were captured from Russian troops across the border for repair in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, all of whom have experience repairing Soviet-made equipment.
Slovakia “will not send tanks because we have no reserve tanks,” said Mr. Nad, underlining a problem facing even Ukraine’s most avid lenders. “We need to keep enough capacity for our own forces.”
But Slovakia does not only transport weapons from its own stockpiles to Ukraine. It also sends military aid from many other countries, including the Czech Republic, Australia and what Mr Nad described as “countries that claim they are not sending military equipment to Ukraine.”
Hungary, Slovakia’s southern neighbor, for example, has declared itself neutral in the conflict and has banned the passage of weapons through its own territory into Ukraine – largely to avoid disrupting supplies of cheap Russian gas – but it is believed to be quietly has supplied weapons through other countries.
Asked about this, a Hungarian government spokesman in Budapest declined to confirm or deny that his country provides military equipment, saying only that “Hungary’s position is well known and has remained unchanged.”
Alarmed by the flow of weapons flowing across the borders of Slovakia, Poland and Romania, Russia has sought to stop or at least slow it down by declaring all foreign weapons destined for Ukraine “legitimate targets”. Russia’s foreign minister vowed last month that Moscow “will not allow” the transfer of the Slovak S-300 air defense system.
It’s too late for that now, and after failing to prevent the delivery, the defense ministry in Moscow claimed on Sunday that Russia had already destroyed Slovakia’s missile system when sea-launched cruise missiles hit a hanger near the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro. touched.
Slovak defense minister Mr Nad dismissed this as “fake news”, apparently intended to save face for Russia and calm the nerves of Russian pilots sent on missions to bomb Ukraine. Nad said he spoke to Ukraine’s defense minister on Monday and assured him that “this system works and works well” and that he was not in Dnipro.
Previous military cargo sent to Ukraine by rail via Dobra and the nearby city of Cierna nad Tisou mainly contained ammunition and basic military equipment.
A separate weapons pipeline through Poland, the main route for US weapons, included weapons such as Javelin, NLAW and Stinger missiles, which are light, portable, high-tech and relatively easy to hide in trucks passing through Poland’s border crossings into western Ukraine.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
However, an air defense battery is too big to hide, especially when traveling on trains with more than 120 cars in full view of drivers blocked by their passage. The cargo was so bulky that it took two days to be delivered in two separate trains just a few kilometers from Dobra in Ukraine.
“Everyone knows what’s going on,” said Jakub Zolt, a steel mill maintenance worker who lives across the road from the yard. He said his grandchildren were afraid of all the commotion, but added that he himself had become accustomed to the clatter of military helicopters and the rumble of trucks carrying weapons toward the loading dock.
Nevertheless, he said, he is concerned that Slovakia, a small country of just 5.4 million inhabitants, is now wading too deep into Ukraine’s war with Russia.
“The Russians could attack us,” he said, adding that he couldn’t understand why Ukrainians needed so much help when “they come here with much nicer cars – Porsches and Mercedes – than we drive in Slovakia.”
Most refugees fleeing the war, almost all women and children, do not drive anything, but cross on foot with only some clean clothes.
Zolt’s jaundiced view of Ukraine highlights the success of opponents of pro-Western Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger, who said in an interview last week: “We must help Ukraine in every way we can to win this war.” Its enemies, who play for a significant part of the population traditionally favoring Moscow, have tried to turn public opinion against support for Ukraine and have seized the war as a political opportunity.
Robert Fico, a scandal-ridden former Slovakian prime minister, rocked the government for keeping the delivery of the S-300 battery secret until it arrived safely in Ukraine when he posted a video to his Facebook page last Thursday. showing a train with the disassembled air defense system on its way to Ukraine.
He denounced Mr. Heger as “a freak in American hands who will do what the Americans tell him to do” and demanded that the public be told immediately where the S-300 system was going.
Defense Minister Nad said the delivery had been kept secret for security reasons. The opposition, he added, is playing “political games” against the interests of their own country and Ukraine as well.
“Russia is killing thousands of people in Ukraine and I am not going to count the votes I would lose – or win – based on the government’s decisions to help. All I count are the lives we can save in Ukraine,” he said.
Pavel Macko, a retired Slovak general who served with NATO in Afghanistan and Germany, said the S-300 system supplied to Ukraine dates back to the 1980s, when Slovakia was a member of the Warsaw Pact as part of Czechoslovakia, and inferior was on American-made Patriot missiles. But, he added, Ukrainians know how to use it and will be able to reduce Russia’s control of the airspace.
“This is not just symbolic, but an important addition that could help Russia change its plans,” he said.
The Mayor of Dobra, Mr. Csoma, said he supported helping Ukraine, but was noncommittal when asked about the wisdom of sending a powerful weapons system like the S-300.
He said he was not informed in advance of the traffic disruption caused by the S-300 trains and said: “They don’t tell me anything. They should at least let me know about these things.”
No one was really concerned about the war’s expansion into Slovakia, he said, but authorities have nevertheless dusted off old civil defense plans and police have been making an inventory of potential air raid shelters. In the event of a conflict, the mayor said, he was assured that district authorities would send buses to evacuate the 520 residents of his village.
“If something bad happens, we’ll all leave,” he said. “So there is no panic yet.”
Reporting was contributed by Julian Barnes in Washington and Benjamin Novak in Budapest.