The new arms package represents the sharpest sign so far that the war in Ukraine is changing – and with it the weapons Ukraine will need if it hopes to continue to hinder a Russian military that has regrouped and supplied itself with its initial failures in the first weeks. of the war.
The Biden administration announced that the new package included 11 Mi-17 helicopters originally earmarked for Afghanistan, 18,155 mm Howitzer guns and 300 more Switchblade drones, in addition to radar systems capable of tracking incoming fire and locate its origin.
This package differs from previous security assistance in part because this tranche contains more sophisticated and heavier weapons than previous shipments. A US official tells CNN that it is by design, arguing that because Russia, which was unable to conquer Kyiv, has changed its strategy to concentrate forces in eastern Ukraine, the US is changing its own strategy in , what it gives Ukraine.
“The contours of what they need are very different,” the US official said.
The newly approved package was announced days after National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley spent more than two hours on the phone with their Ukrainian counterparts reviewing requests. Defense Minister Lloyd Austin also spoke with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov twice last week. Reznikov provided an update on the situation on the ground, which allowed Austin to determine which weapons Ukraine needed most.
Biden delivered the news of the assistance package during a 58-minute phone call with Zelensky from the Oval Office on Wednesday. There was one thing Zelensky asked Biden directly: Mi-17 helicopters. According to a known source, the helicopters were initially not included in the package on Tuesday night because US officials did not know if the Ukrainians wanted or needed them at this time. Zelensky made it clear to the president on Wednesday that they did.
‘A bit like Kansas’
The weapons provided are focused on the type of fighting that is likely to take place in the Donbas region – open terrain rather than the close fighting in urban and forest areas that have taken place in areas around Kiev and other Ukrainian cities. The region also borders southwestern Russia, allowing Russian forces to avoid the forms of maintenance, logistics, and communications problems that almost from the outset derailed their extensive invasion of the country.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said Wednesday that the package was tailored for the fight in the Donbas, a topography he described as “a bit like Kansas.”
“It’s a little bit flatter. It’s a little bit more open. And it’s the kind of place where we can predict that the Russians will use tanks and long-range fires, artillery and rocket fire to reach some of their targets before committing. ground troops, “Kirby said.
The new arms package, Kirby added, was “largely an attempt to give the Ukrainians every possible advantage in this battle to come.”
The Biden administration has been under pressure from two parties to do more to help Ukraine, especially in calls to send more powerful weapons. But the administration resisted for weeks and was wary of how Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his forces already deployed, would react. Officials warned the Kremlin may see it as escalating or an indication that the United States was involved in the fight.
The problem was most acutely felt with the MiG-29 fighter jets Ukraine demanded. The administration refused to participate in a transfer of Soviet-era jets from a third country to Ukraine via the United States and rejected a proposal from Poland.
The United States was concerned, Kirby said on March 9, that “the transfer of fighter jets right now could be mistaken for Mr Putin and the Russians as an escalating step.” Much of the concern internally was over the proposal to fly them into Ukraine from a NATO air base.
Now the rhetoric of the Biden administration seems to have changed in step with the scale of the war. As the United States prepares to send in the types of weapons it has not sent since the invasion began, the Pentagon insisted that this was part of the United States’ commitment “from the very beginning” to help Ukraine defend itself.
“How it is interpreted by the Russians – you can ask Mr Putin and the Kremlin,” Kirby said on Wednesday.
‘Very fast somewhere else’
For weeks, Zelensky asked world leaders for more weapons and equipment. In March, he spoke with the parliaments of 17 countries as well as three international organizations. He never went far from his core message: Ukraine needs more weapons.
He asked Congress for new air defense systems to help defend Ukraine’s skies. He requested 1% of NATO tanks and aircraft to fight back against Russian forces. And he sought more weapons from Belgium, warning that if Ukraine loses, the EU will lose.
But his calls for heavier firepower were largely unanswered. For the most part, countries sent more small arms ammunition, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as protective and medical equipment.
Now that Russian forces are preparing for a massive attack on the Donbas region, the tide is turning.
“The volume of what people are willing to give has grown significantly in the last few weeks,” the U.S. official said. When Ukrainian forces were able to postpone the Russian invasion for the first few days, it put the possibility of security assistance “very quickly elsewhere.”
Slovakia supplied Ukraine with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. The Czech Republic sent in T-72 tanks. The United Kingdom announced that it would send 120 armored vehicles to Ukraine. And now the United States has approved a number of new and more powerful weapons.
As a sign of the coordination of aid to Ukraine, the EU announced that it would provide an additional $ 544 million in aid on the same day that the White House approved its own $ 800 million.
The Pentagon says it’s working as fast as it can
The package announced Wednesday marked for the first time that the United States was supplying Ukraine with howitzers. Kirby said several systems would require additional training for the Ukrainians to use them, including howitzers and counter-artillery radars.
Many of the weapons aimed at Ukraine are heavier, making them more difficult to transport across the country. Ukraine has collected the weapons delivered to date from the United States and other countries at its western border before moving them to forces around the country.
Kirby said the Pentagon knows that “time is not our friend” as Russia prepares for its next offensive, but that it is working to move equipment into Ukraine’s hands as soon as possible:
“Even before this was announced, we had moved at a very, very fast speed all the other security assistance that we have provided, frankly at an unprecedented speed.”
The Pentagon hosted the executives of the military’s eight major general contractors on Wednesday to find out how to arm Ukraine more quickly, according to a reading from the secret meeting. The round table discussion, chaired by Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, focused on the Pentagon’s goal of continuing to supply Ukraine with weapons while being able to maintain the readiness of US forces and support the defense of allies.
This story has been updated with further development on Wednesday.
CNN’s Barbara Starr and Alex Marquardt contributed to this report.