Time for US to end the delays on arming Kyiv

Time for US to end the delays on arming Kyiv

Biden shakes hands with Zelensky during a meeting in Paris. (AFP)
Biden shakes hands with Zelensky during a meeting in Paris. (AFP)
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In the early weeks of this year, the first reports began to surface about a Russian troop buildup in the Belgorod Oblast, located just across the border from Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv. But thanks to the Biden administration, the Ukrainians could do nothing about it but watch and wait.

Kharkiv’s proximity to the Russian border meant that it was one of the cities Moscow had hoped to capture quickly in the opening days of the war in February 2022. A stiff defense of the city by Ukrainians stopped the Russians. Therefore, it is not surprising that Russia had set its sights on Kharkiv once again.

With the availability of commercial satellite imagery, the Russian military buildup just across the border from Kharkiv was no secret. For months, it was common knowledge that the Ukrainians had requested permission to use American-provided weapons to strike the Russian military buildup before it had a chance to attack across the border.

The White House denied each request out of a fear that Ukraine using American weapons to strike inside Russia would be too escalatory. This was a curious argument for it to make considering that Russia uses Iranian and North Korean weapons to hit targets inside Ukraine.

These restrictions by the Biden administration placed the Ukrainians in a deadly and difficult situation. The restrictions allowed Russia to build up forces in proximity to the Ukrainian border without the threat of American-provided long-range rockets or artillery being used against them. It does not take a military strategist to see how this was a problem for Kyiv.

These restrictions by the Biden administration placed the Ukrainians in a deadly and difficult situation. 

Luke Coffey

After months of building up its forces, Russia commenced its much-anticipated military operation against Kharkiv last month. So far, Russia has made minor territorial gains in the direction of the city, but no major breakthrough has happened. While Russia might not be able to capture Kharkiv, the goal will be to advance close enough to the city to place it within the range of its artillery. This would make Kharkiv uninhabitable for the locals living there and spark another wave of refugees.

However, it seems that Ukraine’s recent territorial losses served as a wake-up call for the White House. After months of saying no, the White House U-turned and finally agreed that targets near Kharkiv inside the Russian Federation could be hit using American-made weapons. While this is a welcome development, it is a continuation of President Joe Biden’s dangerous “too little, too late” approach when it comes to supporting Ukraine.

Whether it was Ukraine’s requests for advanced artillery systems, long-range missiles, drones, tanks or infantry fighting vehicles, the White House would almost always first say no to Kyiv, only to later say yes after the pressure mounted. But by then, it was often too late.

For example, from the beginning of Russia’s invasion, Ukraine was asking for advanced air defense capabilities, like the Patriot missile system, to protect major population centers such as Kyiv and Odesa. Repeatedly, the White House said no. It was not until Russia ramped up its air strikes in October 2022, targeting Ukraine’s electrical grid, that the US finally agreed to provide Kyiv with the Patriots.

Perhaps the most consequential White House delay was over the delivery of the Army Tactical Missile System to Ukraine. These ballistic missiles, with a range between 165 km and 300 km, could allow Ukraine to hit Russian targets far from the front lines. This capability is desperately needed. The Ukrainians have been begging for these missiles since 2022. Even Ukraine’s supporters in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, have called on the White House to provide them. Only recently has Ukraine started to receive them in meaningful numbers.

Last June, Ukraine launched its much-anticipated counteroffensive, but it failed to make significant progress due to Russian air attacks. In particular, Russia’s Ka-52 attack helicopter proved to be deadly against unprotected Ukrainian armored vehicles and tanks. In October last year, after Ukraine’s counteroffensive had already lost its steam, the White House finally greenlighted the transfer of a small handful of the Army Tactical Missile System missiles to Ukraine to strike two airfields where many of the Ka-52s were based.

Decisions taken in the Oval Office have a significant impact thousands of kilometers away on Ukraine’s front lines. 

Luke Coffey

In one single attack that lasted only a few minutes, the Ukrainians destroyed about 24 helicopters, including a significant number of Ka-52s. In fact, one estimate claims that 11 percent of Russia’s total Ka-52 helicopter fleet was destroyed or damaged in that single attack. Had the missiles been provided to Ukraine in the spring, before their counteroffensive began, the outcomes last summer would likely have been different. Again, this was too little, too late from the Biden administration.

Decisions taken in the Oval Office have a significant impact thousands of kilometers away on Ukraine’s front lines. Had the US granted Ukraine permission to strike the Russian military buildup in Belgorod, Moscow’s attempt to take Kharkiv would have been seriously hampered before troops even crossed the border. Had the US provided Patriots and other missiles earlier than it did, it is possible that the war could now be on a different trajectory.

According to a famous phrase, “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.” There is no greater example of this than with the White House’s current approach to Ukraine. It is time for the US to give Ukraine what it needs, when it needs it.

President Biden needs to end the delays and understand that arming Ukraine to win, and not just to survive, is the fastest way to bring this war to an end.

  • Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. X: @LukeDCoffey
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