Democrats on Capitol Hill are divided over whether it is time to equip Ukraine with more advanced weapons systems, as Kiev is proving capable with its latest counteroffensive.
In recent weeks, Kiev has reclaimed thousands of square miles of land that has been under Russian control since its invasion of Ukraine began on February 24. Ukraine’s efforts were backed by more than 15 billion US dollars in security aid from Washington.
But Ukrainians have been asking Washington for months to provide longer-range systems — an appeal that hasn’t been met because the Biden government was careful to provide weapons that would enable longer-range attacks on Russia.
In a briefing on September 15, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, warned that the US would “cross the red line and become a party to the conflict” if it sent long-range missiles to Ukraine.
Some Democrats are happy with the Biden administration’s more cautious approach, others believe it is time to meet Kiev’s demands.
“The Ukrainians are now redeploying their armed forces — they look more like a NATO military than a former Soviet military, the Warsaw Pact. What’s more, they’ve actually proven that they’re capable of doing it — both fighting and making this transition while learning new systems,” Representative Jason Crow (D-Colo.) told CNNBreakingNews.
“Now is the time to deploy these more advanced systems — which the administration is doing — and keep pushing them to do more and do so on a faster schedule,” he continued.
MP Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said now is the time to ensure that Ukraine can adequately defend itself over the winter months. It did not provide support for deploying longer-range systems.
“I think the systems we’re giving them — and that we need to look at — are the systems that might be able to drop some of the incoming missiles from Russia that kill innocent Ukrainians… or to make sure they have what they need to defend themselves from these species of rockets,” said Meeks.
“I think from what I understand so far, what they have is enough to defend themselves,” he said.
Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) also said that the government worked at the right pace to give Ukrainians the weapons systems they need.
“Ukrainians can only support so many new weapons systems at any given time. The administration has been very careful to give them what they need without giving them systems that go beyond their operational capacity. So I think we’re working at the right pace when it comes to offering them increasing systems of increasing lethality,” he said.
The Biden government has so far focused on providing Ukraine with the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which is capable of hitting targets approximately 50 miles away.
The government has reportedly considered whether to send Kiev the Army Tactical Missile System, a ground-to-ground system that can hit targets up to 186 miles away.
Ukrainian officials included the system on a list sent to lawmakers, with points they would need to move forward with the counteroffensive, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.
A US official told CNNBreakingNews that the government is primarily investigating what capabilities Ukraine can currently use on the battlefield. At present, it appears that Ukrainians do not need weapons that can attack more than 50 miles away. But the government is also concerned about how Russia might react to an increase in Ukrainian capabilities — which it could see as escalating.
Meeks said he shared government concerns about how Russia would respond to a surge in Ukrainian capabilities.
“I don’t want us to look like we’re the aggressors. According to him, the aggressor involved is clearly Vladimir Putin. Putin was clearly the one who violated everything there was to hurt in terms of the atrocities of war crimes. So that shouldn’t be us. We’re not them,” he said.
Democrats who want longer-term systems to go to Ukraine also recognize the government’s concerns, but do not want a possible response from Russia to provide Ukrainians with the skills they need.
“The administration has done a very good job assessing escalation challenges as they need to take this into account. You must ensure that they don’t create a wider conflict. At the same time, Ukrainians will be responsible for this,” said Crow.
The Democrat from Colorado found that he and other members spoke by phone with Andriy Yermak, head of Ukraine’s presidential office, on Tuesday morning. During the call, they were assured that longer range systems would not be used to reach Russia directly.
“He said directly that they would not use these systems to attack Russian territory. They know we’re their biggest sponsor and supporter, and they won’t put that at risk,” said Crow.
Congressman Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) stated that previous US support “did not induce Putin to do any of the crazy things that some people feared he would do.”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about the political concerns I’ve raised in the past. If it’s useful, if it helps Ukraine win faster, if it can use it within a reasonable amount of time, we should provide it,” Malinowski said.
“And if they can’t use it within a reasonable amount of time, we should also think about training them for the future,” he added.
Even then, Democrats, who want longer-range weapons to be sent to Ukraine, say that the US could create conditions for how Ukraine uses the weapons systems it receives.
The Biden government did this in particular when it sent the HIMARS to Ukraine for the first time in June. At this point, the government said that it had received assurances from Kiev that the system would not be used to attack Russian territory, but to hit Russian targets in Ukraine.
“We are giving Egypt, Saudi Arabia and countries that don’t share our values advanced weapons systems. We have end-use restrictions on these weapons so we can withdraw that support if these countries use them somewhere or in a way that we don’t approve of,” Malinowski said.
“There is no reason why we shouldn’t apply restrictions to Ukraine, a country that shares our values and fights for our freedom as it does for its own, which we don’t impose on a number of dictatorships in the Middle East,” he added.
Deputy Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) stated that the Ukrainians have met the US conditions with regard to the weapons systems already deployed to Ukraine.
“You’ve just seen that Russia is going to go through a mobilization. We have also seen the professionalism of the Ukrainian military and that they can handle such weapons and use them effectively. So I think longer-range weapons will go a long way,” he said.