The new arms package represents the most striking sign yet that the war in Ukraine is changing – and with it the weapons Ukraine will need if it hopes to continue to thwart a Russian army that has regrouped and resupplied after her initial failures in the first weeks of the war.
The Biden administration announced that the new package included 11 Mi-17 helicopters originally intended for Afghanistan, 18 155mm Howitzer cannons and 300 other Switchblade drones, in addition to radar systems capable of tracking incoming fire and locating their origin.
This package differs from the previous security aid in part because this installment includes more sophisticated and heavier weapons than previous deliveries. A US official told CNN this was on purpose, saying that because Russia, which was unable to capture kyiv, changed its strategy to concentrate its forces in eastern Ukraine, the US United are changing their own strategy in what they give to Ukraine.
“The contours of what they need are very different,” the US official said.
The newly authorized package was announced days after National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley spent more than two hours on the phone with their Ukrainian counterparts to review the requests. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also spoke twice with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov last week. Reznikov provided an update on the situation on the ground, which allowed Austin to determine which weapons Ukraine needed most.
Biden broke the news of the assistance program on Wednesday during a 58-minute phone call with Zelensky from the Oval Office. There was one item that Zelensky had asked Biden directly: Mi-17 helicopters. According to a source familiar, the helicopters were initially not included in the package on Tuesday evening because US officials were unclear whether the Ukrainians wanted or needed them at the time. Zelensky made it clear to the president on Wednesday that they had.
“A bit like Kansas”
The weapons provided are focused on the type of fighting likely to take place in the Donbass region – open terrain rather than the close combat in urban and forested areas that has occurred in areas around Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities . The region also borders southwestern Russia, allowing Russian forces to avoid the kinds of support, logistical and communication problems that derailed their all-out invasion of the country almost from the start.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Wednesday the package was suited for combat in the Donbass, a topography he described as “much like Kansas.”
“It’s a little flatter. It’s a little more open. rocket fire to hit some of their targets before engaging.” ground troops,” Kirby said.
The new weapons package, Kirby added, was “really an effort to give the Ukrainians every possible advantage in this upcoming fight.”
The Biden administration has faced bipartisan pressure to do more to help Ukraine, particularly in calls to send in more powerful weapons. But the administration resisted for weeks, wary of the reaction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with his forces already deployed. Officials warned the Kremlin could see it as an escalation or an indication that the United States was joining the fight.
The problem was felt most acutely with the MiG-29 fighter jets requested by Ukraine. The administration refused to participate in a transfer of the Soviet-era planes from a third country to Ukraine via the United States, rejecting a proposal from Poland.
The United States was concerned, Kirby said on March 9, that “the transfer of fighter jets at this time could be mistaken by Mr. Putin and the Russians as an escalation step.” Much of the internal concern was over the proposal to fly them to Ukraine from a NATO air base.
Now, the Biden administration’s rhetoric seems to have changed with the scale of the war. As the United States prepares to send the types of weapons it has not sent since the invasion began, the Pentagon has insisted that this is part of the American commitment “from the beginning” to help Ukraine defend itself.
“How that is interpreted by the Russians – you can ask Mr. Putin and the Kremlin,” Kirby said Wednesday.
“Very quickly in a different place”
For weeks, Zelensky pleaded with world leaders for more weapons and equipment. In March, he met with the parliaments of 17 countries, as well as with three international organizations. He never strayed from his main message: Ukraine needs more weapons.
He asked Congress for new air defense systems to help defend Ukrainian skies. He asked for 1% of NATO tanks and planes to retaliate against Russian forces. And he demanded more weapons from Belgium, warning that if Ukraine loses, the European Union loses.
But his pleas for heavier firepower went largely unanswered. For the most part, countries sent more small arms ammunition, anti-armour missiles and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as protective and medical equipment.
Today, as Russian forces prepare for a massive assault on the Donbass region, the tide is turning.
“The envelope of what people are willing to provide has increased significantly over the past two weeks,” the US official said. Once the Ukrainian forces were able to repel the Russian invasion for the first few days, they put the security assistance options “very quickly in a different place”.
Slovakia has supplied Ukraine with S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. The Czech Republic sent T-72 tanks. The UK has announced that it will send 120 armored vehicles to Ukraine. And now the United States has authorized a range of new and more powerful weapons.
As a sign of coordinating aid to Ukraine, the European Union announced it would provide an additional $544 million in aid the same day the White House authorized its own $800 million aid.
The Pentagon says it works as soon as possible
The package announced Wednesday marked the first time the United States has provided Ukraine with howitzer cannons. Kirby said several systems would require additional training for the Ukrainians to use, including howitzers and counter-artillery radars.
Many of the weapons headed to Ukraine are heavier, making them more difficult to transport across the country. Ukraine has collected the weapons supplied to date by the United States and other countries on its western border before transferring them to forces across the country.
Kirby said the Pentagon knows ‘time is not our friend’ as Russia plots its next offensive, but is working to get equipment into Ukraine’s hands as quickly as possible possible :
“Even before this was announced, we had moved at a very, very rapid rate all the other security aids that we were providing, frankly at an unprecedented rate.”
The Pentagon hosted the CEOs of the top eight military prime contractors on Wednesday to discuss how to arm Ukraine faster, according to a reading of the classified meeting. The roundtable, led by Under Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, focused on the Pentagon’s goals of continuing to supply Ukraine with weapons while being able to maintain the readiness of U.S. forces and to support the defense of the allies.
This story was updated with additional developments on Wednesday.
CNN’s Barbara Starr and Alex Marquardt contributed to this report.