President Joe Biden has announced the US is sending a small number of high-tech, medium-range rocket systems to Ukraine to aid its forces as they struggle to stall Russian progress in the Donbas region.
The rocket systems are part of a new 700 million dollar (£553 million) tranche of security assistance for Ukraine from the US that will include helicopters, Javelin anti-tank weapon systems, tactical vehicles, spare parts and more, according to two senior administration officials.
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 advance 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.
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.Joe Biden
In a guest essay published on Tuesday evening in The New York Times, Mr 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”.
Mr 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 45 miles (70 kilometres), 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.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the US is “deliberately and diligently pouring fuel on the fire”.
He added that the Kremlin does not trust Kyiv’s assurances that the multiple rocket launch systems supplied by the US will not be used to attack Russia.
“In order to trust (someone), you need to have experience with situations when such promises were kept. Regretfully, there is no such experience whatsoever,” Mr Peskov said.
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 Sievierodonetsk.
Sievierodonetsk is important to Russian efforts to capture the Donbas before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defence. The city, which is 90 miles (145 kilometres) 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.
Mr 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.”
It is the 11th package approved so far, and will be the first to tap the 40 billion dollars 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 190 miles (300 kilometres) 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 Zelensky 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 US has provided Ukraine. They 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,” Mr Zelensky said in a recent address.
US and White House officials had no public comment on the specifics of the aid package.