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HomeWorldWest sends Ukraine fighter jets, heavy weapons amid Russian attack in Donbas

West sends Ukraine fighter jets, heavy weapons amid Russian attack in Donbas

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Ukraine’s outgunned and outnumbered military has held out against Russia for almost two months, and as Russia intensifies its attacks on Ukraine’s east and south, Western governments are dispatching heavier weaponry and warplanes to support resistance efforts.

President Biden approved an $800 million aid package last week that dramatically expanded the scope of weapons Washington has supplied to Kyiv. The package included 155 mm howitzers — a serious upgrade in long-range artillery to match Russian systems — 40,000 artillery rounds and 11 Soviet-designed Mi-17 helicopters.

The helicopters use a similar operating system as the Mi-8 helicopters that Kyiv has used for decades, said Alexey Muraviev, a national security expert at Australia’s Curtin University.

“We do the best we can with each package to tailor it to the need at the time, and now the need has changed,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday. “The war has changed because now the Russians have prioritized the Donbas area, and that’s a whole different level of fighting, a whole different type of fighting.”

Ukraine’s stiff resistance to Russia’s invasion — combined with Moscow’s pivot to eastern Ukraine that could signal the start of a protracted fight — has changed the calculus in Western countries that were initially reluctant to supply weaponry on which Ukrainian forces had not been trained, said Amael Kotlarski, a senior analyst at open-source defense intelligence agency Janes.

“There’s a realization that [the war] could go on for a lot longer,” Kotlarski said. “If it goes on for longer, then potentially that gives other countries more room to maneuver when it comes to shipping more complex weapons systems and getting Ukraine trained on them.”

Ukraine has also received fighter aircraft and related parts from other nations, Kirby said. He declined to specify what kind of aircraft has been supplied or which countries have provided them, noting only that Ukraine now has “more operable fighter aircraft than they had two weeks ago.”

Poland tried previously to spearhead a multiparty arrangement to send MiG-29 warplanes to Kyiv — a move the United States declined to support, while noting that other countries were free to make their own decisions regarding what assistance they sent to Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has frequently implored NATO and its member nations to send fighter planes to help his forces strike Russian targets.

At the start of a visit to NATO’s Baltic member states , German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said Wednesday that Germany has delivered antitank weapons, Stinger antiaircraft missiles “and other things that we didn’t talk about in public so that the deliveries could be carried out quickly and securely.”

Some of the materiel being dispatched by the West will arrive ahead of expected clashes between Russian and Ukrainian troops in the eastern Donbas region that could be particularly bloody, said Chang Jun Yan, a military expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. Future combat is likely to be larger in scale than recent battles between the two countries, he said, but Ukrainian troops who have faced off against Russian-backed separatists in the region for years are well-trained to fight in Donbas.

But fresh weapons deliveries and familiarity with terrain do not necessarily give Ukrainian forces an advantage against Russian troops with superior arms. A senior U.S. defense official said this week that Russia was learning from its failure to seize Kyiv, the capital, and making adjustments to its command-and-control and logistics structures.

“The resupply of Ukraine is not just important but has to happen quickly and has to happen in large scale,” said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army major general, who has been analyzing the invasion. “It also has to assume that the Russians might interdict some shipment.”

The donations come with risks: Russia warned in a formal diplomatic note to the United States last week that U.S. and NATO shipments of the “most sensitive” weapons systems to Ukraine could bring “unpredictable consequences.” Russia experts suggested that Moscow may be preparing to attack weapons convoys coming into the country.

Washington Post Pentagon and national security reporter Karoun Demirjian explains the difficulties of deciding which weapons to send Ukraine. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Why is Ukraine’s Donbas region a target for Russian forces?

Other Western nations have also moved to deliver more sophisticated weapons to Ukraine as the war evolves. Britain in April pledged a defense support package worth some $130 million that includes more antitank missiles, air defense systems and nonlethal equipment. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Tuesday that his government is sending “heavier” military equipment soon.

Norway announced Wednesday that it had donated 100 Mistral short-range air defense missiles on top of the light anti-armor weapons it provided late last month. The French-made missiles are fired from launchers that can be operated from the ground, a vehicle, a helicopter or a ship.

Farther afield, the Australian government has started sending Bushmasters to Kyiv after Zelensky asked lawmakers in Canberra for the armored vehicles last month. The 20 promised Bushmasters will protect Ukrainians from explosives, artillery shrapnel and small-arms fire, Canberra said.

The vehicles are not designed for combat on the front line, though. They are “basically big armored trucks” of a variety used commonly in Western military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kotlarski said. In eastern Ukraine, they will be road-bound and most useful in a support role as battlefield taxis or ambulances.

“There is a reason why the Ukrainians are asking for fighting vehicles, tanks. Those will be needed in the east,” Kotlarski said. “Artillery and tanks — that’s what wins battles at this scale.”

Ukraine will require arms deliveries well into the future if it is to fight off Russia, and analysts say the 40,000 rounds Washington has promised would last no more than two weeks on the battlefield. “Quantity really matters a lot,” said Ryan. “Even though I think the Ukrainians qualitatively are better, they still need a certain mass to repel the Russians.”

Kotlarski also emphasized that “numbers matter” and will determine whether it can beat back Russia’s assault. “The continuation of delivery of munitions, especially antitank weapons [and] short-range air defense, is basically what’s keeping Ukraine in the fight,” he said.

But the pool of munitions “isn’t huge” in Europe, he added, and it could take years to replenish existing stockpiles. Countries must still balance the security imperatives of aiding a fight often described as a battle fought on Europe’s behalf while ensuring that they do not significantly weaken their own defenses.

“There’s a question of how sustainable this is from a Western point of view, in the sense of how deep countries are willing to dig into their stocks and potentially compromise their own defense capabilities,” Kotlarski said.

Although some equipment — such as the Bushmasters — is advanced, much of what the West is providing is not as sophisticated as the weapons in Russia’s arsenal. Norway, for example, is phasing out the Mistrals from service, “but it is still a modern and effective weapon that will be of great benefit to Ukraine,” Norwegian Defense Minister Bjorn Arild Gram said in a statement.

Sending weapons slated for retirement allows countries to help Ukraine battle Russia on NATO’s front line while modernizing their own arsenals. “It’s a good way of sending aid that isn’t critical to your own defense needs,” Kotlarski said.

Western leaders have insisted that they send equipment that is readily usable. The United States has also committed to training Ukrainian forces that are out of the country to use new weapons.

Most of the West’s arms “would not give the Ukrainian military the technological edge of the Russian military, but they will allow it to make up, at least temporarily, for the shortage of military supplies,” Muraviev said.

Karen DeYoung, Rachel Pannett and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

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