Biden administration plans to send military equipment to Ukraine once it arrives in Afghanistan

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WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is considering a plan to redirect helicopters and other military equipment once allocated to the now defunct Afghan army to Ukraine to help quickly bolster its defenses in the face of the build-up of Russian troops near its border, US and Ukrainian officials said.

The equipment is sought after by Ukraine, which has discussed it with Pentagon officials, who generally support the supply of more weapons to Ukraine. The National Security Council has yet to approve the delivery of weapons as the administration seeks a diplomatic solution to get Moscow to abandon its campaign of military pressure, US officials said.

The military kit previously reserved for the Afghan National Security Forces includes Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters, US officials said. The helicopters would provide more mobility for Ukrainian forces, which have a broad front to defend and lost planes in clashes in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Moscow separatists rebelled in eastern China. Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials also lobbied the administration for air defense systems, including Stinger surface-to-air missiles, which would help them defend their country against Russian planes, a Ukrainian official said. The country is currently using Soviet-era systems, which have been modernized but lagged behind some high-tech equipment used by the Russian military.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to discuss any new weapons that might be considered and pointed to the $ 2.5 billion in military aid the United States has provided Ukraine since 2014, including 450 billion millions of dollars in support that are sent this year.

With intelligence estimates indicating that the reinforcement of Moscow’s troops near the Ukraine could reach full force next month, the Biden administration is debating how to continue diplomacy with Moscow and balance that with it. increase in Ukraine’s military capabilities. For years, the United States has sought to walk a fine line in providing Ukraine with so-called lethal aid, like Javelin anti-tank missiles, without provoking Moscow.

A military escalation along the Ukrainian border further strained ties between Russia and the United States, after clashes over cybercrime, expulsions of diplomats and a migrant crisis in Belarus. The WSJ explains what is driving the wedge between Washington and Moscow. Composite Photo / Video: Michelle Inez Simon

Some members of Congress and government officials said the National Security Council feared stepping up arms deliveries over fears of escalating tensions with Moscow and delaying nascent efforts to start talks with the Kremlin.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers who returned from a fact-finding trip to Ukraine earlier this month said President Biden’s threat to impose economic sanctions is not enough to deter a possible Russian attack. They called for sanctions before an attack and for accelerated military support, including air defense systems and anti-ship missiles that could be quickly integrated into Ukraine’s defense.

One of the lawmakers, Rep. Seth Moulton (D., Mass), said the United States must now focus “on deterring conflict rather than responding to conflict if it does occur” .

“I want to give the Ukrainians defensive weapons which will have a high cost in terms of Russian losses,” Moulton said. “The problem is more bureaucracy. It just seems like it’s taking a long time to deliver those damn weapons. We’re running out of time here. We have to speed things up. “

While US officials say Russian President Vladimir Putin has not decided to invade, Russia has publicly increased its demands, with proposals released by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday calling for ensuring that the military alliance of The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will not expand eastward, including granting membership to Ukraine. Moscow is also concerned about Ukraine’s tilt to the west. Although Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO is not an immediate prospect, the United States and allied countries have said Russia cannot dictate who can join and they continue to train Ukrainian forces.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Friday that the administration is constantly assessing Ukraine’s additional military needs and that Mr Biden will determine next steps.

“Significant progress at the negotiating table, of course, will have to take place in a context of de-escalation rather than escalation,” Sullivan said, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations. “We should basically be looking for a combination of deterrence and diplomacy in order to see if we can produce exactly the de-escalation that we are all looking for. “

A Pentagon team visited Ukraine late last month to assess the Ukrainian military’s air defense capabilities and needs and is currently working on a report, officials said. However, many of the Ukrainian military‘s shortcomings are well known.

“They have a capable army, but they do not have the capacity to adequately defend their airspace or sea space,” said Philip Breedlove, a retired Air Force general who served as commanding officer. of NATO when Russia annexed Crimea and intervened militarily in the east. Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military became interested in obtaining helicopters and ammunition for the Afghan army after Mr Biden announced in April the withdrawal of US forces, according to Ukrainian and US officials.

Among the options, US officials say, sending five Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters that had been used by the Afghan Air Force but were undergoing maintenance in Eastern Europe. . The Afghan army was used to piloting Russian helicopters, a legacy from the years when Afghanistan was a Soviet client state. The United States had therefore purchased and maintained some of these planes before switching to the supply of American-made Black Hawks.

Ukraine is also looking for a dozen Black Hawk helicopters that the United States donated to the Afghan Air Force but did not deliver. Pentagon officials declined to comment on a plan to transfer materiel destined for Afghanistan to Ukraine.

“We continue to work closely with Ukraine to assess the specific needs of Ukrainian forces,” said Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, spokesman for the Pentagon.

In addition, US and NATO stockpiles of ammunition and weapons in Romania and Bulgaria could also be made available to the Ukrainian military if the decision is made to do so, officials said. Americans.

“It is difficult to find military equipment in preparation which is not being used and which is not deployed elsewhere,” said a senior administration official. The Defense Ministry “is examining all options to provide Ukraine with as much defensive capability as possible as quickly as possible.”

Russia’s current military build-up goes well beyond the force Moscow assembled in 2014 and 2015, and Russian intervention this time could involve large airstrikes and missiles, former and current officials said. This prompted some foreign policy analysts to warn that increased military support for Ukraine could simply alarm Moscow without upsetting the military balance. Members of Congress and officials urging more support, however, say it would increase the risk of Russian casualties in a conflict and, thus, help deter the Kremlin from attacking.

President Biden said the United States would not send its own troops to Ukraine but would instead rely on the threat of strict economic sanctions, future military support for Kiev and the deployment of additional US troops to countries in the United States. NATO in Eastern Europe to deter the Russians. military intervention.

In addition to military equipment previously destined for Afghanistan, the Biden administration is also evaluating a separate Ukrainian request for Stingers and other air defense systems, but these have yet to be approved, US officials said.

“If you want to have an effect, the question is what can you provide that could be immediately used without extensive training or overhead over the next few months,” said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general who has led U.S. Army forces in Europe from 2014. to 2018.

The Florida National Guard is currently training Ukrainian forces in the country. U.S. special operations forces were also involved in the training effort, but the Pentagon declined to disclose its membership numbers.

Write to Vivian Salama at [email protected], Michael R. Gordon at [email protected] and Gordon Lubold at [email protected]

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