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U.S. prepping major military package for Ukraine

U.S. Army Strykers are pictured.

The U.S. is gearing up to announce a major new weapons package for Ukraine on Friday, as top military leaders from around the world gather in Germany to discuss how to help Kyiv in its fight against Russia, according to three U.S. officials and another person familiar with the discussions.

While the next tranche will include additional artillery, ammunition and armor — likely Stryker armored combat vehicles — the U.S. is not expected to sign off on American M1 Abrams tanks, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks ahead of an announcement.

The Biden administration currently has no plans to send the Abrams, the Army’s 60-ton main battle tank, the people said.

The reluctance is due to the logistical and maintenance challenges of the tanks, and not over concern that their transfer could escalate the conflict, one of the U.S. officials said. This person noted that the U.S. has helped Ukraine obtain Soviet-era tanks and supports the British decision to send around a dozen of its Challenger 2 tanks.

The package will likely include a number of Strykers, an eight-wheeled armored fighting vehicle built by General Dynamics Land Systems, as well as ground-launched Small Diameter Bombs, which have a range of roughly 100 miles, two of the people said. POLITICO first reported last week that the Pentagon was considering sending Strykers in the upcoming tranche of aid. Reuters first reported that Boeing-made Small Diameter Bombs were under discussion.

This package will not include the long-range Army Tactical Missile System that can reach deep behind Russian lines in Crimea or the Donbas, according to two of the people. The Biden administration has balked at sending long-range munitions, despite Kyiv’s pleas, for fear of provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The administration believes Ukraine can “change the dynamic on the battlefield” and repel Russian invaders without those missiles, an offensive weapon that can fly up to 190 miles, said Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy official.

“Our judgment to date has been that the juice isn’t really working the squeeze on the ATACMs. You never know, that judgment at some point could change, but we’re not there yet on the ATACMs,” Kahl told reporters after a trip to Kyiv this weekend.

The White House has not yet signed off on the package, which is still being finalized and could change this week. But officials expect an announcement around the regular Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday, where Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley will meet with their counterparts to discuss new Ukraine aid.

The latest meeting comes as Kyiv raises alarms that Moscow is preparing to launch a major new offensive to take the capital city. Ukrainian intelligence officials have warned the Kremlin plans a new mobilization of up to 500,000 conscripts, while on Monday, Russia and Belarus began joint military exercises.

Pressed by Kyiv to send heavier weapons in recent weeks, Western nations have dramatically increased their pledges of new armor, aimed at helping Ukraine build new armored units for hard fighting this spring and summer. Late last year, the U.S. and the Netherlands agreed to spend $90 million to upgrade around 90 Soviet-era T-72 tanks operated by the Czech Republic for shipment to Ukraine. Germany has also pledged its Marder infantry fighting vehicle and France its AMX-10 RC, a wheeled system built around a turret-mounted 105mm gun. Canada will also provide 200 Canadian-made personnel carriers, Defense Minister Anita Anand announced on Wednesday while visiting Kyiv.

This month, the U.S. announced it would send 50 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, a tracked armored vehicle that carries an autocannon, a machine gun and TOW missiles. The administration has already provided thousands of combat vehicles, including Humvees and mine-resistant vehicles used to move troops on the battlefield.

In a sign the U.S. sees the need as urgent, senior Biden administration officials visited Kyiv over the weekend ahead of the meeting in Germany. Jon Finer, the White House deputy national security adviser; Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy; and Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other senior Ukrainian officials.

“I salute everything that the Ukrainian people have done to continue to survive & endure. Frankly, that’s why Putin will lose, because his theory of victory is that we’ll give up. @POTUS & @SecDef have been clear: We will stay w/the Ukrainian people for as long as it takes,” Kahl tweeted after the visit.

But Ukraine is still pleading for Western tanks on top of the U.K.’s Challengers. A handful of nations have signaled their willingness to send their German-made battle tanks, but are waiting on a decision from Berlin to greenlight the re-export. The Leopards are seen as a better option than the Abrams because of the sheer number in use already in Europe. Leopards are also considered easier to maintain and consume less fuel.

While German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, who replaced Christine Lambrecht this week, is expected to meet on Thursday with Austin, it’s possible a decision has already been made higher up in the German government on whether to approve the transfers.

Both Poland and Finland have said they’re willing to send some of their Leopard tanks to Ukraine, but no movement has been made publicly to make that transfer appear imminent. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week he’s not yet ready to make a decision on the Leopard tanks in his army’s warehouses, however. Other countries that field the German tanks, such as Spain and Norway, have not commented publicly on the matter, though Spain expressed a willingness to send some Leopards last summer.

“We believe the provision of modern tanks will significantly help and improve the Ukrainians’ ability to fight where they are fighting now and fight more effectively going forward,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday, referring to European tanks. He declined to comment on any upcoming aid package from the U.S.

This week’s Ramstein meeting promises to be one of the most significant of the monthly gatherings of defense ministers, as the 50 nations discuss how to prepare Ukraine for more hard months of fighting. In addition to the recent British announcement of Challenger tanks and the new American package, Finland is expected to unveil its largest Ukraine military aid shipment to date, according to one person familiar with the thinking in Helsinki. Finland doesn’t publicize its contributions, but has sent artillery, small arms and winter clothing in the past.

Western leaders have been cautious about publicly pushing Germany too hard on the tank issue. Support for Ukraine is “about making sure that each of us can do what we can do,” James Cleverly, the U.K.’s foreign secretary, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. “And our ability to support is going to be different from one nation to another.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. kicked off new training programs for Ukraine this week: an expanded course to enhance Ukrainian forces’ fighting skills in Germany, and training on the Patriot missile system at Fort Sill, Okla. Ukraine is set to receive three Patriot batteries, a defensive system designed to shoot down missiles and aircraft: one from the U.S. and one each from Germany and the Netherlands.

Before heading to the Ramstein meeting, Milley stopped by to see the training in Germany, which is expanding the pipeline to 500 Ukrainian soldiers per month and includes instruction on how to coordinate infantry maneuvering with artillery support.

Alexander Ward and Erin Banco contributed to this report from Davos, Switzerland.


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