The Biden administration is preparing to send advanced long-range rocket systems to Ukraine as the country suffers losses in the east from advancing Russian forces, said U.S. administration officials and congressional staffers.
The rocket system has been a top request from Ukrainian officials who say it is necessary to curb the advance of Russian forces, which claimed full control of the strategic eastern city of Lyman on Friday, handing Moscow another victory in its offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. CNN first reported on U.S. preparations to send the system.
The transfer is subject to a final decision by the White House.
The Kremlin has warned that any country providing advanced weaponry to Ukraine will face harsh repercussions. On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the West has “declared total war” against Russia.
The Biden administration is attempting to help Kyiv defend itself without provoking Russian retaliation on U.S. forces or allies. In a closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill this week, State Department officials said that some White House officials had concerns that providing the MLRS with a range of more than 180 miles could result in Ukrainians forces firing rockets into Russian territory and causing a major escalation, according to people familiar with the briefing, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military matters.
The State Department officials in the meeting said such concerns would probably be addressed with the Ukrainian leadership. A senior U.S. official said the White House is comfortable with providing the MLRS system to Ukraine but will seek to manage the escalation risk by withholding the longest range rockets compatible with the system.
Typical rockets fired by these systems have a range of about 43 miles, according to Army data. Specialized rockets called Army Tactical Missile Systems can strike much farther at distances up to 186 miles. Those missiles were used during the Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War and are used to pulverize critical infrastructure, such as air defense sites and forward bases.
Even the shorter-range rockets would more than double the reach of Ukrainian firepower. Kyiv’s forces are using U.S.-delivered M777 howitzers, which have a range of about 18 miles. Other sophisticated weapons the United States has sent include thousands of Stinger and Javelin shoulder-fired missiles.
Despite the flood of U.S. and Western arms to Ukraine, Moscow maintains an advantage in firepower, which Ukrainian officials say is causing them to lose ground in Donbas.
The White House came under criticism from some Republicans on Friday for not moving faster with the delivery of the rocket system, including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “The Biden administration has been dragging their feet,” he tweeted.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the Biden administration was not slow-rolling the request.
“I would take issue with the idea that there’s a holdup here,” he told reporters on Friday.
He said the United States was moving weapons systems into Ukraine “every single day … helping them literally in the fight, including howitzers, which are still arriving.”
When asked to confirm the impending transfer of long-range rocket systems, Kirby said “I’m not going to get ahead of decisions that have not been announced.”
Ukrainian officials have been increasingly public in their demands for weapons amid Russian advances in the east. “If you really care for Ukraine, weapons, weapons and weapons again,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Thursday.
“My least favorite phrase is ‘We are working on it’; I hate it. I want to hear either ‘We got it’ or ‘It’s not going to happen,’” he said.
In the easternmost province of Luhansk, Russia controls more than 95 percent of the territory, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank. Severodonetsk — one of the last big cities under Ukrainian control in eastern Luhansk — is under major assault, with forces almost encircling the city. Russian troops are steadily approaching from the northeast, where they already control several areas.
In Izyum, a city close to Donbas region, Russian troops were advancing east — possibly to merge operations with those in the captured city of Lyman, potentially encircling a large mass of Ukrainian forces in what would be a major battlefield defeat. Russian artillery and tanks were observed in nearby cities. Around the city of Donetsk, the Russians so far were unsuccessful, the think tank said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Kuleba, his Ukrainian counterpart, on Friday. Following the call, Kuleba tweeted “Heavy weapons on top of our agenda, and more are coming our way.”
Alex Horton, Maria Paul, Claire Parker and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.