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U.S. defends supplying advanced rocket systems to Ukraine

It will take Ukrainian forces about three weeks to learn how to use High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, the Pentagon said

A High Mobility Artillery Rocket System is launched during combat training at the Yakima Training Center in Washington in 2011. (Tony Overman/Olympian/AP)
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The Biden administration on Wednesday defended its decision to send advanced multiple-launch rocket systems to Ukraine, rejecting criticism that the decision comes too late to make a difference while brushing aside the Kremlin’s complaint that the United States is prolonging the war.

The transfer of four M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, commonly known as HIMARS, to Ukraine will come soon, and will require about three additional weeks to train Ukrainian forces to use them, said Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy. The weapons, deployed by the U.S. military to target militants during wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, will allow Ukrainian forces to rapidly and precisely launch multiple rockets at Russian artillery and forces.

“We’re not seeing the Ukrainian defenses buckle. They’re hanging on, but it is a grinding fight,” Kahl said. “We believe that these additional capabilities will arrive in a time frame that’s relevant.”

The satellite-guided weapons, launched from the back of a truck, will be the most advanced arms provided to Ukraine by the Biden administration since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. Ukrainian officials had been requesting them for about two months without approval, prompting frustration in both Kyiv and Washington.

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Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said last week that Ukraine needed rocket systems and that some countries were “dragging their feet” in providing Kyiv with heavy weapons.

The rocket systems transfer was approved after Ukraine assured the Biden administration that it will not use them to launch cross-border attacks on Russia, Kahl said. The administration also decided to send munitions the HIMARS can launch that have a range of about 45 miles, rather than the long-range Advanced Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) that can reach up to 186 miles, limiting how Ukraine can use the weapons.

Kahl said that the United States has a “fair amount of capacity” to send additional HIMARS, but U.S. officials want to assess how they are used before making future deliveries.

“We need to get information … about how useful they are and how they’re being used on the battlefield,” he said.

The weapons are part of a new $700 million package with a variety of weapons and equipment the United States has already sent to Ukraine. They include counter-artillery radars, Javelin anti-armor missiles, 155-millimeter howitzer artillery rounds and Mi-17 helicopters, the Pentagon said.

The United States has sent Ukraine $5.3 billion in security assistance since President Biden took office, the bulk of it — $4.6 billion — following the invasion.

The Biden administration announced the HIMARS decision Tuesday night with Russia poised to seize the city of Severodonetsk, home to about 100,000 people. While Russia’s earlier efforts to seize the capital city of Kyiv and other major population centers were repelled, Russian forces now control the southeastern port city of Mariupol, the southern city of Kherson and swaths of territory connecting them.

Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, which includes Severodonetsk, wrote Wednesday in a Telegram post that Russian troops have consolidated in the city, pushing in from the north, south and east.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the United States on Wednesday of escalating tensions by providing the HIMARS.

“We believe that the United States is deliberately and diligently pouring fuel on the fire and is following the line to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian,” he said in a news briefing Wednesday.

“Such deliveries do not contribute to … the Ukrainian leadership’s willingness to resume peace talks,” he added.

Peskov also said that the Kremlin does not trust assurances that Ukraine will not use the weapons to launch missiles into Russia.

“No, to trust, you need to have experience of cases where promises were kept. Unfortunately, there is no such experience at all,” he said.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected Peskov’s assessment, saying during a news conference in Washington that Russia alone is to blame for the war and that Russian President Vladimir Putin can end it by withdrawing his forces.

“The best way to avoid escalation is for Russia to stop the aggression and the war that it started,” Blinken said, appearing at a news conference alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “It’s fully within its power to do so.”

Blinken noted that Biden had warned Moscow that the United States would provide Kyiv with more-sophisticated weapons if Russia invaded.

“We have done exactly what we said we would do,” he said.

The decision was greeted warmly by Ukrainian officials, who lauded the HIMARS as a potential difference maker.

“I think that it has a very fundamental impact and importance,” Sergiy Kyslytsya, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations, said Wednesday in a Washington Post Live interview. Even though Russia has made limited gains on the battlefield, he said 60 to 100 Ukrainian soldiers are dying per day as Ukraine resists Russia’s offensive.

“If we do not receive in the most near future necessary weaponry — weapons and arms and munitions — that may last for quite a long time,” Kyslytsya said.

At the Pentagon, Kahl said that “no system is going to turn the war” alone. But he said that the HIMARS, coupled with other weapons the United States already has provided, “will allow Ukraine to range any target they need” in fighting in the eastern part of the country.

“This is a battle of national will,” Kahl said. “You have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of men mobilized on each side. It is a grinding, hard conflict, and it’s likely to be a conflict [that] we’ve said many times will stretch on for a long time.”

Ilyushina reported from Riga, Latvia. Missy Ryan in Washington and Bryan Pietsch in Seoul contributed to this report.