Biden administration officials, hawkish about arming Ukraine with more advanced and lethal weapons, are working their way around a White House policy that has been criticized for being too slow and cautious in decision-making.
President Biden’s announcement this week of an additional $800 million in military assistance that included, for the first time, advanced munitions that Ukraine had requested.
While the package still fell short of the specific requests made by Ukraine, it also represented a real transformation.
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the latest package of military assistance is an “important change” and is a sign that the administration and US allies are “consistently raising tensions” against Russia.
“Are there still red lines? Yes,” he added, but he said the United States had walked even those lines without crossing them.
The announcement of the new package came after public pressure from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
On Wednesday, Zelensky spoke with Biden for nearly an hour before announcing the arms package. He previously posted on Twitter his demands for specific military equipment, including combat aircraft, tanks, and multiple launch missile systems.
The campaign, which Zelensky described as “#ArmUkraine” was an attempt to get the United States and Western allies to speed up deliveries and meet specific demands for critical weapons systems as Russian forces withdraw, regroup and resupply.
“Arms coming to Ukraine are very slow, and we need them badly. This is the main reason [Zelensky] Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of the Verkhovna Rada, told The Hill.
Outside analysts and people familiar with the administration’s logic say a combination of caution and concerns about logistics have prevented the United States from fulfilling Zelensky’s wish list.
The package, for example, does not include the warplanes that Zelensky described in his video appeal as “essential” to “save millions of Ukrainians as well as millions of Europeans.”
It will also take about four weeks for the United States to provide all of the military assistance included in the $800 million package, a senior defense official told reporters on Thursday.
John Herbst, a former ambassador to Ukraine and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, welcomed Biden’s military package, but said the Ukrainians needed air power, particularly Soviet-era MiG fighters and Sukhoi bombers.
“They still say no to the MiGs and Sukhoi bombers, these MiGs and Sukhoi bombers will be very useful in dealing with Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers in open ground,” Herbst said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the administration still had “concerns” about the delivery of MiGs from Poland to Ukraine, referring to previous assessments by the Pentagon that such a move could prompt Putin to escalate conflict with NATO.
“That assessment has not changed,” Psaki said.
An outside analyst with insight into the administration’s thinking credited Secretary of State Anthony Blinken for leaning forward in sending more advanced weapons to Ukraine.
The analyst, who asked not to be named to speak frankly, referred to Blinken’s support for the transport of MiGs. Blinken said on March 6 that the United States had given a “green light” to Poland. The White House reneged on the covenant the next day.
“Politics is run by the National Security Council and we know Blinken’s instincts are very different, and we saw that in the Meg case,” the analyst said.
US officials have publicly indicated that changes in the war are altering the types of American support.
“The nature of conflict is changing … and it stands to reason that the precise forms of support will adapt to this changing reality,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a briefing Wednesday.
Russia is believed to be regrouping for a more concentrated attack on the eastern and southern regions of the country.
Speaking at the State Department on Wednesday, Price said the $800 million arms transfer to Ukraine followed a direct appeal from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to Blinkin requesting “arms, weapons, and weapons.”
He met Minister Blinken, and Minister Blinken had three answers: Yes, yes, and yes. “And today I saw the fruits of some of those discussions,” Price said.
William Taylor, director of the Russia and Europe Program at the US Institute of Peace, said mounting evidence of atrocities against civilians, and Biden’s accusation of Russia of genocide, had turned the administration to be more aggressive in helping it.
“I don’t feel that hesitation anymore,” Taylor said.
“I’m talking to the people at the Pentagon who are doing everything they can to help” to step up arms transfers, including from the United States but also from NATO allies like the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which have supplied Ukraine, respectively, with the T-72 tanks and S300 missile defense system it ordered Zelensky.
“The bureaucracy is working on this, I think, really fully, and there are things that have to be in the hands of the Ukrainians, like, tomorrow, in order to disrupt and defend against this big offensive that the Russians are apparently planning and they can start,” he said.
This effort also gets support from key allies such as Great Britain, which has been particularly tough.
“There is a window of opportunity,” said James Cleverly, Britain’s Foreign Secretary for Europe and North America, of the need to increase the delivery of military aid to Ukraine.
“We’re providing the Ukrainians with the systems they need to properly defend their homeland, and we’re looking forward to doing that while the Russians sort of put that back in,” he said during an interview in Washington this week.
Morgan Chalfant contributed to this story.
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