“A profound change”: the United States increases the supply of heavy weapons to Ukraine

Before Russian forces began withdrawing from territory around kyiv earlier this month, US war policy seemed aimed at delicately threading a geopolitical needle: bolstering Ukraine’s defenses without sparking a conflict between NATO and the Kremlin.

In the past two weeks, however, current and former US officials have said much of the caution of the early phases of the war has been all but abandoned. US President Joe Biden has become much more strident in his rhetoric, accusing Vladimir Putin of “genocide” and calling for the creation of a war crimes tribunal.

Nowhere was the shift in policy more evident than in the weapons the United States began shipping to Ukrainian forces.

Just a month after opposing a Polish plan to supply MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian Air Force, the White House has pivoted, easing the supply of spare parts to kyiv to hand over 20 combat aircraft in the air – and greatly expanding the range of heavy weapons it delivers to combat.

Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, who has waged an unremitting campaign to pressure the United States and its allies to provide more and heavier weapons as the conflict escalates, said he would meet Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, and Lloyd Austin, US Secretary of Defense in Ukraine on Sunday. The State Department declined to comment.

“This is an administration that was very hesitant in the not too distant past to provide equipment that would give the Ukrainians a capability that could be provocative for the Russians,” said Ian Brzezinski, who led NATO policy in the United States. Pentagon under the Bush administration and is now in the Atlantic Council.

Brzezinski noted that six weeks ago the administration did not provide armored personnel carriers, long-range howitzers or helicopters. “It’s a very clear and profound change.”

Officials say the change in policy is the result of several factors, including a desire to do more to help Kyiv following evidence of atrocities in areas occupied by Russian troops before withdrawing from the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital.

There has also been a reassessment of the threat posed by Russia’s nuclear arsenal, a saber Putin shook off at the start of the war but which analysts now believe is unlikely to deploy. And the United States is trying to meet the changing needs of Ukraine’s military as it prepares to repel a fresh assault from Moscow in the country’s eastern Donbass region.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, pictured addressing the US Congress last month, has waged an unremitting campaign to pressure the West to provide more and heavier weapons © Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The United States opposed a Polish plan to supply MiG-29 fighter jets to the Ukrainian Air Force, but has since facilitated the supply of spare parts to Kyiv to put 20 fighter jets back into service. the air © Reuters

According to current and former officials, one of the most important triggers for this change was the surprisingly efficient performance of the Ukrainian military, which exceeded even the most optimistic expectations of military analysts inside and outside. exterior of the Pentagon.

“At first the estimates were that the Ukrainian military couldn’t last more than a few weeks,” said Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If that’s your assessment, of course, the equipment you’re going to send is different than if you’re expecting a war that’s going to last for months and years.”

The change is evident in the rapid pace of arms shipments between the United States and Ukraine. Every day, eight to 10 cargo flights, most operated by the United States, land near the country’s western borders, carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in increasingly heavy weapons, US officials said. Defense officials describe a process by which equipment, once cleared for shipment, reaches Ukraine in 48 to 72 hours.

Of the $3.4 billion in lethal aid the United States has pledged since the war began, the United States has committed nearly half, or $1.6 billion, since last week . “I can’t think of another case, certainly not in the middle of a war, doing this as quickly as we are doing it,” said a former senior US military commander.

It took time for the United States and its allies to work out what kinds of systems it could supply without provoking a response from Moscow, but so far Russia has not attacked any cargo. “We have no indication that any of the Western equipment or shipments were hit or otherwise deterred by the Russians,” a senior NATO official said.

Over the past week, the United States has focused on providing weapons considered more offensive, such as heavy artillery, helicopters, armored personnel carriers and lethal attack drones. By contrast, Washington’s first-aid program for Ukraine at the start of the conflict, valued at $350 million, included anti-armour, small arms and ammunition, as well as body armor.

Biden maintained two of the red lines he drew at the start of the invasion: no US troops on the ground in Ukraine and no NATO-imposed no-fly zone that could drag the military alliance into a direct conflict with Russia.

But there have been some significant changes to the margins. US troops begin training Ukrainians in Europe. And the United States has sent a Patriot system to Slovakia, which will be operated by American troops, so that Bratislava can send its S-300 air defense system to Ukraine.

And even though the United States opposed Poland’s proposed MiG 29, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby signaled earlier this week that Washington was now supporting an unnamed country’s effort to send fighter jets. in Ukraine.

There are no signs that the United States plans to ease anytime soon. Biden said Thursday he would ask Congress for more money next week “to keep arms and ammunition flowing uninterrupted to brave Ukrainian fighters.”

This strategy is underscored by Washington’s assessment that the conflict will continue for months, if not longer.

” What you see. . . It is the United States that recognizes that we are now going to fight,” said Dan Baer, ​​senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who served as ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe under the Obama administration.

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Christi C. Elwood