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Ukraine Wants Military Support to Deter Russia While U.S. Weighs Response

When Ukraine’s defense minister visited his U.S. counterpart at the Pentagon last month, he delivered a wish-list of assistance to defend his country against the threat of Russian troops massing near its borders. At the top were high-tech antimissile systems, Ukrainian and U.S. officials close to the situation said.

A month later, the White House said it is still considering that request.

Ukrainian officials, while reluctant to criticize the U.S. directly, said that a more muscular program of military assistance is needed to blunt Moscow’s pressure campaign and deter a possible Russian attack.

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council which oversees the military, said that Russian President

Vladimir Putin’s

goal is to re-establish a zone of control over Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union. U.S. tensions with China, its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and its own domestic issues with Covid-19 and inflation might lead the Russian leader to think this is an opportune moment to try, Mr. Danilov said.

“He thinks this might be a time of weakness for the United States and so he has decided to test it,” he said. “For Putin, sovereign countries should not exist near his borders. For him, there is no Ukraine, Poland or Baltics. They don’t exist.”

A military buildup along the Ukrainian border is further straining ties between Russia and the U.S., after clashes over cybercrime, expulsions of diplomats and a migrant crisis in Belarus. WSJ explains what is deepening the rift between Washington and Moscow. Photo Composite/Video: Michelle Inez Simon

The Biden administration has vowed to impose a series of economic sanctions, stepped-up military assistance to Ukraine and reinforced deployments in North Atlantic Treaty Organization members along the alliance’s eastern flank closest to Ukraine and Russia if Russia attacks. Under current plans, those would kick in after a Russian invasion was under way.

Karen Donfried, the senior State Department official for Europe, said this week that President Biden had told Mr. Putin that the U.S. would provide additional military equipment to Ukraine “above and beyond” the current military support package if Russia attacks.

The U.S. continues “to deliver defensive military assistance to Ukraine,” the National Security Council said. National security adviser Jake Sullivan said last week that the White House was constantly assessing Ukraine’s military needs and putting together potential packages. The Ukrainian military’s ability to absorb new equipment, not fear of antagonizing Russia, he said, was a major consideration in deciding what to provide.

Mr. Putin and senior Russian officials have portrayed Russia as under threat. Mr. Putin said this week that Ukrainian and NATO forces are encroaching on Russia and prompting it to consider “retaliatory military-technical measures.” While Mr. Putin says Russia wants to talk, those comments have spurred concerns that military action could quickly follow if Moscow’s demands that NATO sunder military ties to former Soviet republics aren’t met.

Ukrainian national security official Oleksiy Danilov said Russia has yet to accumulate enough forces near its borders to mount a serious invasion.



Photo:

VALENTYN OGIRENKO/REUTERS

Ukrainian officials and some former U.S. officials say the Biden administration’s efforts to deter Russia would be strengthened if it frontloaded its military support for Ukraine and spelled out its sanctions, dispelling any doubts about the resolve of the U.S. and its European allies.

The Biden administration has for weeks been discussing whether to provide five Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters that are already in Ukraine, where they were being repaired for the Afghan military under a NATO program before the U.S. withdrew from Afghanistan in August, U.S. and NATO officials said.

No decision has been made on whether to turn over the helicopters to the Ukrainian military, the U.S. and NATO officials said. A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on a proposed transfer but said the U.S. was working with Ukraine to evaluate its force’s requirements.

In Ukraine’s snowy capital, whose central squares are now decorated with lights for the New Year and orthodox Christmas season, the mayor has ordered an inventory and inspection of basements and underground storage facilities that might serve as bomb shelters. Residents aren’t showing signs of panic.

Mr. Danilov, the Ukrainian national-security official, said Russia has yet to accumulate enough forces near its borders to mount a serious invasion.

Russia invaded in 2014, annexing Crimea and backing separatists in Ukraine’s east in fighting that continues. After seven years, Mr. Danilov said, Ukrainians are inured to Moscow’s bellicosity. “We will fight with the means we have,” he said. “What else can we do?”

Russia’s military buildup may be mainly a pressure campaign to force diplomatic concessions, according to some U.S. and European officials. While the Ukrainian army, hardened by years of fighting, would be a stiff opponent, Moscow maintains a lopsided military advantage over Kyiv in terms of its air, land and sea capabilities.

When Ukraine Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov met with his U.S. Defense Secretary

Lloyd Austin

in Washington last month, anti-rocket systems such as Patriot missiles were on his list of requested equipment, along with training, said an official familiar with the matter.

Mr. Reznikov declined to comment on the meeting. Mr. Danilov said the government can’t comment on what Ukraine is requesting.

Since 2014, the U.S. has provided about $2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine, trying to balance Ukraine’s needs against provoking Russia. Assistance has included Javelin antitank missiles and radars to pinpoint the source of artillery fire. Patrol boats, medical gear, communications equipment and training have also been provided.

Ukraine air defense capability remains a weakness, according to former U.S. military officials, especially if Russia launches missile strikes against Ukrainian antiaircraft units and then uses Russian air power to destroy command and control centers and attack the Ukraine army.

Russia has hundreds of Russian intermediate and short-range missiles among land and sea-based units near Ukraine’s borders that can cover virtually any target inside the country, said Mykhailo Samus, director of New Politics Research think tank based in Kyiv. Russian air power would follow the missile strikes, he said, and cyberattacks would help cripple communications.

The missile and air campaign could last only a few hours before Russia’s own army would move in, he said.

Former U.S. military officials said it is unrealistic to think that the U.S. could easily expand its military assistance as the Biden administration is planning after a Russian attack is under way.

“If Russia does attack, Russian air forces would likely close the airspace,” said a former U.S. general. “If fighting begins, it will also become more difficult to move the supplies within Ukraine to where they are needed.”

Write to Alan Cullison at [email protected] and Michael R. Gordon at [email protected]

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