The Biden administration says it will send Ukraine a small number of high-tech, medium-range rocket systems, a critical weapon that Ukrainian leaders have been begging for as they struggle to stall Russian progress in the Donbas region.
The rocket systems are part of a new $700m tranche of security assistance for Ukraine from the United States that will include helicopters, Javelin anti-tank weapon systems, tactical vehicles, spare parts and more, two senior administration officials said on Tuesday. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to preview the weapons package that will be formally unveiled on Wednesday.
The US decision to provide the advanced rocket systems tries to strike a balance between the desire to help Ukraine battle ferocious Russian artillery barrages while not providing arms that could allow Ukraine to hit targets deep inside Russia and trigger an escalation in the war.
In a guest essay published on Tuesday evening in The New York Times, President Joe Biden confirmed that he has decided to “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”.
Biden had said on Monday that the US would not send Ukraine “rocket systems that can strike into Russia”.
Any weapons system can shoot into Russia if it is close enough to the border. The aid package expected to be unveiled on Wednesday would send what the US considers medium-range rockets – they generally can travel about 70km (45 miles), the officials said.
The Ukrainians have assured US 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.
The expectation is that Ukraine could use the rockets in the eastern Donbas region, where they could both intercept Russian artillery and take out Russian positions in towns where fighting is intense, such as Severodonetsk.
Severodonetsk is important to Russian efforts to capture the Donbas before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defence. The city, which is 145km (90 miles) 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.
Biden in his New York Times essay added: “We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to attack beyond its borders. We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.”
It is the 11th package approved so far and will be the first to tap the $40bn in security and economic assistance recently passed by Congress. The rocket systems would be part of Pentagon drawdown authority, so would involve taking weapons from US 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.
Officials said the plan is to send Ukraine the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, which 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 300km (190 miles) and is not part of the plan.
Since the war began in February, the US and its allies have tried to walk a narrow line: send Ukraine weapons needed to fight off Russia, but stop short of providing aid that will inflame Russian President Vladimir Putin and trigger a broader conflict that could spill over into other parts of Europe.
Over time, however, the US and allies have amped up the weaponry going into Ukraine, as the fight has shifted from Russia’s broader campaign to take the capital, Kyiv, and other areas, to more close-contact skirmishes for small pieces of land in the east and south.
To that end, 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.