U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday his administration will send more advanced rocket systems and munitions to Ukraine, answering urgent pleas for weapons the Ukrainians view as critical in the effort to stall Russia’s latest advances.
In a guest essay published in the New York Times, Biden said the U.S. is committed to supplying Ukraine with enough weapons and ammunition to fight on the battlefield and retain a strong position in negotiations with Moscow.
“That’s why I’ve decided that we will 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,” the president wrote.
Government officials later told reporters that the U.S. will be sending the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), considered a medium-to-long-range system that can fire missiles about 45 miles (70 kilometers) away. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the plans.
Biden told reporters on Monday that the U.S. would not be sending Ukraine missile systems that can reach Russia. But because the most intense fighting is currently in the eastern Donbas region, any weapon system — particularly missiles — has the potential to enter Russian territory if they are fired close enough to the border.
The Ukrainians have assured U.S. officials that they will not fire rockets into Russian territory, according to the senior administration officials. One official noted that the advanced rocket systems will give Ukrainian forces greater precision in targeting Russian assets inside Ukraine.
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.”
The HIMARS is mounted on a truck and can carry a container with six rockets. The system can launch a medium-range rocket, which is the current plan, but is also capable of firing a longer-range missile, the Army Tactical Missile System, which has a range of about 190 miles (300 kilometers) and is not part of the plan.
The expectation is that Ukraine will use the rockets in the Donbas, where they could both intercept Russian artillery and take out Russian positions in towns where fighting is intense, such as Sievierodonetsk.
Sievierodonetsk is important to Russian efforts to capture the Donbas before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defense. The city, which is 90 miles (145 kilometers) south of the Russian border, is in an area that is the last pocket under Ukrainian government control in the Luhansk region of the Donbas. Russian officials have claimed a majority of the city as of Tuesday.
The rocket systems are set to be included in a new, US$700-million aid package that will be announced Wednesday that will include helicopters, Javelin anti-tank weapon systems, tactical vehicles, spare parts and more, according to senior administration officials.
It will be the 11th package approved so far, and will be the first to tap the US$40 billion in assistance recently passed by Congress.
The rocket systems would be part of Pentagon drawdown authority, so would involve taking weapons from U.S. inventory and getting them into Ukraine quickly. Ukrainian troops would also need training on the new systems, which could take at least a week or two.
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. The rockets have a longer range than the howitzer artillery systems that the U.S. has provided Ukraine, and 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.
Biden’s announcement signals the U.S. is continuing to strike the balance it has maintained throughout the war: providing significant aid to Ukraine without inflaming tensions with Moscow and triggering a broader conflict that could spill into other parts of Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned the West against sending greater firepower to Ukraine. The Kremlin said Putin held an 80-minute telephone call Saturday with the leaders of France and Germany in which he warned against the continued transfers of Western weapons.
Overall, the United States has committed approximately US$5 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration, including approximately $4.5 billion since the Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
Canada has committed nearly $2 billion in aid to Ukraine since the war began, including weapons, artillery and heavy equipment.
—With files from the Associated Press