Ukraine's Zelenskiy calls for air defense systems as allies meet

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday called for additional air defense systems to be sent to Kyiv to help protect against Russian strikes, adding that a pause in U.S. funding had helped Moscow seize the initiative.

Zelenskiy's comments come just days after Congress emerged from a half-year of deadlock to approve a $61 billion aid package for Ukraine.

On Friday, the Pentagon announced that it will buy $6 billion worth of new weapons for Ukraine including interceptors for the Patriot air defense system, the single largest assistance package President Joe Biden's administration has provided.

"This year, Russian jets (have) already used more than 9,000 guided aerial bombs against Ukraine and we need the ability to shoot down the air combat aircraft so that they do not approach our positions and borders," Zelenskiy said at the start of a virtual meeting led by the United States on helping arm Ukraine.

The first such meeting, known as the Ukraine Contact Group, was held two years ago on Friday.

"While we were waiting for a decision on the American support, the Russian army managed to seize the initiative on the battlefield," Zelenskiy said.

"We can still now, not only stabilize the front, but also move forward achieving our Ukrainian goals in the war," he added.

After the meeting, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he would ask allies to accept more risk.

"We're going to ask (allies) to accept a little bit more risk so that we can do what's necessary in Ukraine," Austin told reporters.

Austin said the Patriot missile defense system itself would not be a "silver bullet" for Kyiv, but rather integrating it with other missile defense systems.

Spain's defence minister said on Friday that Madrid would deliver Patriot anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, following pressure from NATO and European Union allies to send more military aid to Kyiv.

The new $6 billion U.S. weapons package annonced will be purchased from defense contractors and not drawn from U.S. stocks and delivery to Ukraine will take time, perhaps even years for some systems.

The United States hopes its new deliveries of weaponry will help Ukraine rebuild defenses and refit its forces as it recovers from a gap in U.S. assistance, but it does not expect Kyiv to launch large-scale offensive operations against Russian forces in the near term.

The influx of weapons could improve Kyiv's chances of averting a major Russian breakthrough in the east, just over two years since the start of Moscow's full-scale invasion, military analysts say.

But it remains unclear how much pressure Kyiv can apply on Russia after months of rationing artillery as its stocks ran low. Kyiv also faces manpower shortages on the battlefield and questions linger over the strength of its fortifications along a sprawling, 1,000-km (621-mile) front line.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali. Additional reporting by Mike Stone; editing by Christina Fincher, Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)