The $3 billion military aid package that President Joe Biden announced for Ukraine Wednesday shows his administration expects the war with Russia to last for many months or years, and signals Washington is in the fight for the duration.
The latest aid package is the largest to date and includes weaponry that won’t appear on the battlefield for a year or more. The promise of ongoing shipments of sophisticated, American-made weaponry well into the future, in contrast to previous tranches designed to help with ongoing battles or imminent counter-offensives, signals to Western allies, Ukraine and Russia that the U.S. intends to stick with the war, regardless of daily gains or losses.
“The United States of America is committed to supporting the people of Ukraine as they continue the fight to defend their sovereignty,” Biden said in a statement, announcing the aid package. “This will allow Ukraine to acquire air defense systems, artillery systems and munitions, counter-unmanned aerial systems, and radars to ensure it can continue to defend itself over the long-term.”
The package, which came on the 31st anniversary of Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union, will include 245,000 rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition, surface-to-air missile systems and laser-guided rocket systems. While previous weapons were drawn from existing U.S. stockpiles to expedite delivery, many of these items have yet to be manufactured, and it could take as long as two years to reach the battlefield, administration officials say.
The new aid also includes funding for U.S. troops to continue providing weapons training to the Ukrainian military elsewhere in Europe for several years. The administration has repeatedly insisted that U.S. troops will not fight in Ukraine, but Biden has sent thousands of forces into surrounding countries, principally in Poland, to deliver on-the-ground guidance to Ukraine and reassurance to allies.
Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters at the Pentagon that Russian President Vladimir Putin is wrong to believe that Russia can win the long-game, outlasting the Ukrainians in their will to fight and the international community’s will to continue its support. “We’re not just providing assistance to Ukraine right now. It’s going to be a steady stream of assistance that will stretch out over many months and years,” Kahl said. “It’s precisely challenging Putin’s miscalculation, we believe, that he can just grind it out and wait it out. So it is supposed to impact his calculus.”
The administration hopes that Ukraine can translate the continued supply of advanced arms into lasting tactical success. The Ukrainian military faces an escalating fight in the east against a much larger, more technologically advanced enemy, yet the war-torn nation has thus far been successful in slowing the Russian advance. This is due, in part, to a growing arsenal of Western supplied long-range artillery.
Ukraine now has 16 U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), a wheel-mounted launcher that fires six precision-guided rockets that boost the 20-mile artillery range of Kyiv’s forces more than two-fold. The systems have enabled the Ukrainians to pummel Russian logistics hubs, command and control nodes and other positions from beyond the reach of much of Moscow’s artillery.
With Russian forces bogged down on the eastern front, the conflict has settled into a war of attrition. Thousands of Ukrainian and Russian troops have been killed or injured over the past half-year in vicious fighting that has left more than 5,500 civilians dead and created 6.6 million refugees, according to U.N. estimates. Air strikes continue daily. The U.S. State Department urged U.S. citizens to leave Ukraine in a new advisory Monday, saying that “Russia is stepping up efforts to launch strikes against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and government facilities in the coming days.”
Following its last invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Russian military maintained a continuing presence in two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine, known as the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which have been ruled by puppet governments installed, armed, funded and operated by the Russian security services. The Russian military expanded into surrounding territory since Putin’s military order on Feb. 24 to assault Ukraine by air, land and sea, capturing and occupying territory in Kharkiv, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya.
The Kremlin intends to hold “sham” referendums in order to create “republics” in those recently occupied territories, beginning as early as this week, according to John Kirby, White House national security spokesman. “We expect Russia to try to manipulate the results of these referenda to falsely claim that the Ukrainian people want to join Russia,” he said Wednesday. “Since they obviously are having trouble achieving geographic gains inside Ukraine, they’re trying to gain that through false political means by conducting the sham referenda to give the appearance of legitimacy of their occupation.”
Putin, for his part, has said he wants the war to end but has not provided details of a prospective deal, or good faith evidence he is actually willing to agree to one. He’s accused the U.S. and the West of providing weapons to Kyiv that will push them into fighting Russia “to the last Ukrainian.”
Bolstered by recent battlefield successes, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed his forces will not only repel Russia’s recent offensives but retake Russian-occupied territory, such as the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Putin annexed in 2014. “What for us is the end of the war? We used to say: peace. Now we say: victory,” he said Wednesday in an Independence Day speech. “We will not sit down at the negotiating table out of fear, with a gun pointed at our heads. For us, the most terrible iron is not missiles, aircraft and tanks, but shackles.”
The White House, which has been forced to adapt its strategy at nearly every turn in the conflict, says it ultimately hopes diplomacy will lead the way to ending the war. But the lack of progress in negotiations or on the battlefield has prompted the U.S. to draw up more aggressive strategies to deter Putin.
“It would seem that we are indeed resigning ourselves to a multi-year war, rather than hoping that any ‘fall offensive’ by Ukraine could so reshape the battlefield as to create conditions that make serious negotiations possible,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.
The latest round of security aid, which falls under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, is the 20th package of weapons and equipment, amounting in $13.7 billion, that the U.S. has committed to Ukraine since the war began.