U.S.-Russia Tensions Rise With New Rockets For Ukraine
President Joe Biden’s decision Wednesday to provide Ukraine with advanced rocket systems that can strike targets from dozens of miles away gives Kyiv a new, much-needed advantage in their hard-fought war with Russia. After months of begging the U.S. for long-range rockets, President Volodymyr Zelensky has announced that the Ukrainian military will shortly have an artillery weapon capable of striking targets up to twice the distance of current ones. This is in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine’s eastern region.
Moscow was aware. Speaking with reporters after the announcement Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the U.S. of dangerously escalating the war, raising the specter not only of increased fighting in the country, but potentially spreading it beyond Ukraine’s borders. “The U.S. is deliberately and diligently pouring oil on the fire,” Peskov said.
According to administration officials, four U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems were discussed for several weeks before Biden decided to give the weapons. Officials say that even then the president demanded multiple assurances from Ukraine including Zelensky, to ensure HIMARS was used only as a defense weapon, and not fired on Russian soil. According to officials, these rockets will have a maximum range around 48 miles. They are not as advanced HIMARS rockets (some of which can travel 300+ miles), but this is to protect the public.
This deliberation is a common theme of the 3-month-old battle. Biden has been pressured to increase the number of sophisticated American-made arms shipments. He is faced with the same problem every few weeks: How far can the U.S. go in order to supply military assistance without starting war between Russia and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies (NATO). Officials say that the White House has been trying to find the perfect balance in every decision regarding aid since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24th. “We are mindful of the escalation risk,” Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters at the Pentagon, “But in the first instance, we’re focused on what we think the Ukrainians need for the current fight.”
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Around 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads belong to Russia and the United States and these arsenals loom large as the Biden Administration seeks to keep pressure on Putin to stop his military campaign. The White House seeks to preserve a position that will prevent and limit any escalation. “As much as I disagree with Mr. Putin, and find his actions an outrage, the United States will not try to bring about his ouster in Moscow,” Biden wrote in an New York Times’ op-ed, explaining his decision. “So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces. We don’t encourage or permit Ukraine to go beyond its boundaries. We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.”
If Putin’s forces continue to be bogged down fighting a smaller, less capable Ukrainian army, many experts fear the danger of a wider, more catastrophic confrontation with the West will rise. Putin threatened to use nuclear weapons as a response to the U.S.’s backseat involvement in the conflict. There are still no clear repercussions for Ukraine if HIMARS-launched rockets accidentally strike Russia. Kremlin spokesman Peskov told reporters Wednesday that Moscow doesn’t believe in Ukraine’s promises not to use the new weapons outside its borders.
Nearly every stage of the conflict has seen the White House forced to change its strategy. The Biden Administration delayed a planned military test launch for an intercontinental missile in March due to Russian concerns. The U.S. rebuffed a request to supply the Ukrainian Air Force 28 MiG29 fighter jets a week later. Throughout the war, Biden has restrained from engaging in tit-for-tat nuclear threats in response to Putin’s fiery rhetoric.
Washington and its allies also found ways to support Ukraine’s fight. At first, after Putin’s February 24 invasion, the U.S. and its European allies levied sweeping economic sanctions. They increased the supply and quality of arms to Kyiv. They began to provide weapons training for the Ukrainian military in foreign countries as the weapon flows increased.
Although the Biden administration repeatedly stated that U.S. troops would not be fighting in Ukraine, President Obama has increased defenses of surrounding countries and has sent roughly 14,000 soldiers eastward to Europe to train allies. Ukraine is not an NATO member but does border four other countries, including Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Hungary. The U.S. and other NATO allies have pledged to protect their eastern and central European members under the alliance’s defining Article 5 mutual defense commitments.
The U.S. is also placing any blame for escalation at Moscow’s doorstep. “The Russians can end this conflict anytime they want,” Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters at the Pentagon. “If they are wary of escalation, all it takes is one man to say stop. And they can do it.”
Kahl stated that it would take approximately three weeks for NATO and the U.S. to train Ukrainians in HIMARS. “It’s important for them to get trained on the systems to get familiar with the systems,” he said. “We will be in a position to rapidly surge additional munitions as appropriate if the battlefield evolves.”
HIMARS (wheel-mounted Multiple-Launch Rocket System) is a version of the track-mounted Multiple-Launch Rocket System, which NATO forces employ in Europe. The six rockets fired by each system are precision-guided and will significantly increase Ukraine’s artillery reach from 20 miles currently provided by the U.S. M777 howitzers. This will prove crucial for the Donbass. The war is now an artillery duel between the two countries, with them exchanging fire every day.
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In the east and south, Ukraine’s military is facing an increasing battle against a more powerful and technologically sophisticated enemy. Kahl stated that HIMARS won’t change this fundamental equation but will give Ukraine more capabilities to defend itself. “It’s a grinding conflict,” Kahl said. “No system is going to turn the war. This is a battle of national will.”
HIMARS’ Wednesday announcement was part of larger package worth $700 million in military aid. This assistance provides a broad range of weapon systems to the Ukrainian military that will help them defeat the Russian heavy force. This transfer also includes Mi-17 helicopters and advanced radar systems as well as Javelin missiles and other anti-armor weaponry.
The weapons and equipment are being sent under a so-called “presidential drawdown authority,” which allows Biden to transfer the hardware from U.S. stocks without Congressional approval in order to speed up delivery in an emergency. Each day, eight to ten planeloads have been delivered by the Pentagon of antiaircraft and antimor missiles, remote controlled drones, ammunition, and laser-guided Rockets. Since taking office in January 2013, Biden has committed $5.3 million to Ukraine’s security assistance.
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