WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration is expected to announce that it will send Ukraine a small number of high-tech, medium-range missile systems, a crucial weapon that Ukrainian leaders have been begging for while fighting to halting Russian advances in the Donbass region, US officials said on Tuesday.
The US plan tries to strike a balance between wanting to help Ukraine counter rampant Russian artillery barrage and providing weapons that could allow Ukraine to hit targets deep in Russia’s interior, and triggering an escalation of the war. President Joe Biden said Monday the US would not send Ukraine “missile systems capable of attacking Russia.”
Any weapon system can fire at Russia if it is close enough to the border. The aid package, expected to be unveiled on Wednesday, would send what the US believes are intermediate-range missiles — they can generally travel about 70 kilometers, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss yet-to-be-released aid .
The expectation is that Ukraine could use the missiles in the eastern Donbass region, where they could both intercept Russian artillery and take out Russian positions in cities where heavy fighting is taking place, such as Sievierodonetsk.
Sievierodonetsk is important to Russia’s efforts to seize the Donbass before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defenses. The city, which is 145 kilometers south of the Russian border, is in what is the last island controlled by the Ukrainian government in the Luhansk region of Donbass.
U.S. officials didn’t say how much the aid will cost, but it will be the 11th package approved so far and the first to take the $40 billion in support recently passed by Congress in claims. The missile systems would be part of the Pentagon’s drawdown agency, so weapons would have to be removed from US inventories and shipped quickly to Ukraine. Ukrainian troops would also need training on the new systems, which could take at least a week or two.
Officials said the plan is to send Ukraine the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, which is truck-mounted and capable of transporting a six-rocket container. The system can launch a medium-range missile, which is the current plan, but can also launch a long-range missile, the Army Tactical Missile System, which has a range of about 190 miles (300 kilometers) and is not part of the plan.
Since the war began in February, the US and its allies have tried to walk a fine line: send Ukraine weapons needed to ward off Russia, but not provide aid, which incites Russian President Vladimir Putin and a broader conflict triggers, which could spread to other parts of Europe.
Over time, however, the US and its allies have increased arms going to Ukraine as combat has shifted from Russia’s broader campaign to capture the capital, Kyiv, and other areas to closer skirmishes over small pieces of land east and south.
To this end, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked the West to send several launch missile systems to Ukraine as soon as possible to help stop Russia’s demolition of cities in the Donbass. The missiles have a longer range than the howitzer artillery systems that the US has provided to Ukraine. They would allow Ukrainian forces to attack Russian troops from a distance beyond the range of Russian artillery systems.
“We are fighting for Ukraine to be equipped with all the weapons needed to change the nature of the fighting and move faster and more confidently towards the expulsion of the occupiers,” Zelenskyy said in a recent speech.
Ukraine needs multiple launch missile systems, said Philip Breedlove, a retired US Air Force general who was NATO’s top commander from 2013 to 2016.
“These are very important skills that we don’t have yet. And not only do they need them, but they’ve been very vocal about wanting them,” Breedlove said. “We need to get serious about supplying this army so it can do what the world is asking of it: fight alone on the battlefield against a world superpower.”
US and White House officials have not publicly commented on the details of the aid package.
“We continue to consider a number of systems that have the potential to be effective on the battlefield for our Ukrainian partners. But the President has indicated that we will not send long-range missiles for use outside of the battlefield in Ukraine,” State Department Ned Price said on Tuesday. “As the battle has changed its dynamic, we have also changed the type of security support we provide them, in large part because they have asked us about the different systems that will be more effective in places like Donbass.” ”
Russia has been making incremental advances in the Donbass as it seeks to take over the remaining parts of the region not yet controlled by Russian-backed separatists.
Putin has repeatedly warned the West not to send more firepower to Ukraine. The Kremlin said Putin held an 80-minute phone call with leaders of France and Germany on Saturday, during which he warned against continuing Western arms transfers.
Overall, the United States has pledged about $4.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration, including about $3.9 billion since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
AP diplomatic writer Matthew Lee and Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.