The United States plans to begin training Ukrainians on how to operate howitzer artillery systems in the coming days, a senior US defence official has said, as the Biden administration seeks to bolster Ukraine’s defences against an expected Russian offensive in the east.
Speaking on condition of anonymity on Monday, the official said the howitzer training would take place outside Ukraine.
The 155mm howitzer cannons are part of an additional $800m weapons package for Ukraine that US President Joe Biden announced last week. It also includes other artillery systems, artillery rounds, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters.
“This new package of assistance will contain many of the highly effective weapons systems we have already provided and new capabilities tailored to the wider assault we expect Russia to launch in eastern Ukraine,” Biden said in a statement on Wednesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week had called on the country’s allies to provide more heavy equipment and weapons to stave off the expected Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine.
The US defence official said four US cargo flights arrived in Europe on Sunday with weapons and other materials as part of the $800m aid package. The US plans to teach Ukrainian trainers how to use some of the new weapons and then for the trainers to instruct their colleagues in Ukraine.
But Moscow, which launched its invasion on February 24, recently warned the Biden administration in an official diplomatic note of “unpredictable consequences” should Washington provide further weapons to Kyiv.
“We call on the United States and its allies to stop the irresponsible militarization of Ukraine, which implies unpredictable consequences for regional and international security,” the note read, as reported by The Washington Post.
On Monday, Russian forces stepped up their bombardment of cities across Ukraine ahead of what is expected to be an all-out assault on the country’s east.
Ukrainian officials said at least seven people were killed in Lviv, where plumes of black smoke rose over the western city that has seen only sporadic attacks since the war began and has become a haven for civilians fleeing fighting elsewhere.
The attacks came as Russia continued building up troops and artillery in the east and south for the expected start of a new ground offensive in the Donbas region.
The senior US defence official told reporters that Russia was aiming at military targets in Lviv and the capital, Kyiv, in the north. The port city of Mariupol was still contested as Russia appeared to have sent reinforcements into Ukraine in recent days, the official added.
“Our assessment is Mariupol is still contested … [it] remains under threat from the air but both from missile strikes as well as bombs from the air but even of course artillery,” the official said.
According to the official, there were about 76 Russian battalion tactical groups in southern and eastern Ukraine, an increase of about 11 in recent days.
Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Monday that he had spoken with his Romanian counterpart Vasile Dincu “on the need for urgent assistance to Ukraine ahead of a likely Russian military offensive in eastern Ukraine”.
“I think you can expect that we will continue to escalate our financial sanctions and other economic measures against the Russian Federation until and unless Moscow relents in its campaign against Ukraine,” Price told reporters.