WASHINGTON — The Biden administration announced on Tuesday that it will send Ukraine a small number of high-tech, medium-range rocket systems, a critical weapon that Ukrainian leaders have been begging for as they struggle to stall Russian progress in the Donbas region.
According to two officials from the administration, these rocket systems form part of an additional $700 million U.S. security aid package for Ukraine that includes helicopters, Javelin antitank weapons systems, tactical vehicles and spare parts. Officials spoke under anonymity in order to provide a glimpse of the weapons package, which will be officially unveiled on Wednesday.
U.S.’s decision to supply the advanced rocket systems is an attempt to balance the need to assist Ukraine against the Russian artillery fire, while also avoiding arms that might allow Ukraine to attack targets deep within Russia. This could lead to an increase in war.
In a guest essay published Tuesday evening in The New York Times, President Joe Biden confirmed that he’s decided to “provide the Ukrainians with more advanced rocket systems and munitions that will enable them to more precisely strike key targets on the battlefield in Ukraine.”
Biden had said Monday that the U.S. would not send Ukraine “rocket systems that can strike into Russia.” Any weapons system can shoot into Russia if it’s close enough to the border. The aid package expected to be unveiled Wednesday would send what the U.S. considers medium-range rockets — they generally can travel about 45 miles (70 kilometers), the officials said.
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Senior administration officials reported that the Ukrainians assured U.S. officials, that they would not launch rockets onto Russian soil. A senior official stated that advanced rocket systems would give Ukrainian forces more precision when targeting Russian assets within Ukraine.
It is possible that Ukraine will use rockets from the eastern Donbas to intercept Russian artillery or take out Russian positions at towns like Sievierodonetsk.
Sievierodonetsk is important to Russian efforts to capture the Donbas before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defense. It is located 90 miles (145 km) to the south of Russia’s border and is within an area which remains under the control of the Ukrainian government in the Luhansk Region of the Donbas.
Biden in his New York Times’ essay added: “We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.”
Speaking in Oval Office of White House on Tuesday May 31, 2022 at Washington, Joe Biden is President.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
It’s the 11th package approved so far, and will be the first to tap the $40 billion in security and economic assistance recently passed by Congress. Rocket systems will be included in Pentagon drawdown authority. This would mean that weapons would have to be taken from the U.S. stock and brought into Ukraine as quickly as possible. The training of Ukrainian troops on these new systems could also take at most a week.
Officials stated that the goal is to ship Ukraine the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (or HIMARS). It is mounted on trucks and can transport six rockets. Although the system is capable of firing medium-range rockets, it is also capable of firing an Army Tactical Missile System (which has a range approximately 190 miles (303 kilometers). This is not included in the plans.
The U.S. has tried to keep the conflict in check since February. They sent weapons to Ukraine to defeat Russia. But they did not send any aid to Russia that would inflame Vladimir Putin or trigger an even wider conflict.
Over time, however, the U.S. and allies have amped up the weaponry going into Ukraine, as the fight has shifted from Russia’s broader campaign to take the capital, Kyiv, and other areas, to more close-contact skirmishes for small pieces of land in the east and south.
To that end, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been pleading with the West to send multiple launch rocket systems to Ukraine as soon as possible to help stop Russia’s destruction of towns in the Donbas. Rockets can travel farther than howitzer artillery units that the U.S. provided Ukraine. They would allow Ukrainian forces to strike Russian troops from a distance outside the range of Russia’s artillery systems.
“We are fighting for Ukraine to be provided with all the weapons needed to change the nature of the fighting and start moving faster and more confidently toward the expulsion of the occupiers,” Zelenskyy said in a recent address.
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Ukraine needs multiple launch rocket systems, said Philip Breedlove, a retired U.S. Air Force general who was NATO’s top commander from 2013 to 2016.
“These are very important capabilities that we have not gotten them yet. And they not only need them, but they have been very vociferous in explaining they want them,” said Breedlove. “We need to get serious about supplying this army so that it can do what the world is asking it to do: fight a world superpower alone on the battlefield.”
Officials from the White House and the United States did not comment publicly on details of the aid package.
“We continue to consider a range of systems that have the potential to be effective on the battlefield for our Ukrainian partners. But the point the president made is that we won’t be sending long-range rockets for use beyond the battlefield in Ukraine,” State Department Ned Price said Tuesday. “As the battle has shifted its dynamics, we have also shifted the type of security assistance that we are providing to them, in large part because they have asked us for the various systems that are going to be more effective in places like the Donbas.”
Russia continues to make incremental gains in Donbas and tries, with Russian-backed separatists backing it, to take over the remainder of the region.
Putin warned repeatedly the West not to send greater firepower towards Ukraine. The Kremlin claimed that Putin had a telephone conversation lasting 80 minutes Saturday with leaders from France and Germany, in which he warned against Western weapons transfers.
The United States have provided security assistance for Ukraine totaling $5 billion over the period of the Biden presidency, which includes approximately $4.5 Billion since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2014.
—Matthew Lee (AP Diplomatic Writer) and Aamer madhani (Associated Press Writer) contributed to this report
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