PResident Joe Biden’s decision on Wednesday to supply Ukraine with advanced rocket systems capable of hitting targets tens of miles away gives Kyiv a much-needed new advantage in its bitter war with Russia. After months of pleading with the United States to send in long-range missiles, President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian military will soon have a weapon with about twice the range of the current artillery pieces they use to fight the better armed Russian troops who invaded the eastern part. from their country.
Moscow noticed it. Speaking to reporters after Wednesday’s announcement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the United States of dangerously escalating the war, raising the specter of not only an upsurge in fighting in the country, but also of a potential spread beyond the borders of Ukraine. “The United States is deliberately and diligently throwing oil on the fire,” Peskov said.
In fact, the decision to provide four US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) was debated for weeks before Biden felt comfortable sending the weapons, officials say. administration. Even then, the president wanted several assurances from Ukraine, including from Zelensky himself, that HIMARS would only be used as a defensive weapon and not fired into Russian territory, officials said. As a safety precaution, the rockets the administration has decided to provide have a maximum range of about 48 miles, officials said, rather than more advanced HIMARS munitions, some of which can travel up to 300 miles.
Such deliberation became a recurring theme in the three-month fight. From the start, Biden has been pushed to send more and more shipments of sophisticated American-made weapons. Every few weeks he is faced with the same dilemma: how far can the United States go to provide much-needed military aid without degenerating into open warfare between its United Nations Treaty Organization allies? North Atlantic (NATO) and Russia? Striking the right balance has been the driving factor behind every aid decision at the White House and the Pentagon since Russian President Vladimir Putin issued Feb. 24 orders to invade Ukraine, officials say. “We are aware of the risk of escalation,” Colin Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told Pentagon reporters, “But initially we are focusing on what we think the Ukrainians have need for the current fight.”
Read more: TIME interview with Volodymyr Zelensky
About 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads belong to Russia and the United States and these arsenals figure prominently as the Biden administration seeks to keep the pressure on Putin to halt his military campaign. The White House wants to maintain a posture that can prevent or limit escalation. “Even though I disagree with Mr. Putin and find his actions outrageous, the United States will not try to oust him in Moscow,” Biden wrote in a New York. Time‘ op-ed, explaining his decision. “Until the United States or our allies are attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, whether by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces. We neither encourage nor allow Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We don’t want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.
If Putin’s forces continue to become bogged down in the fight against a smaller and less capable Ukrainian military, many experts fear the danger of a broader and more catastrophic confrontation with the West will arise. Putin has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons in response to the United States’ secondary role in the war. It remains unclear what repercussions Ukraine faces if HIMARS rockets hit Russia accidentally or deliberately. Kremlin spokesman Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that Moscow did not believe Ukraine’s promises not to use the new weapons outside its borders.
The White House has been forced to adapt its strategy at almost every turn of the conflict. In March, the Biden administration postponed a long-planned military test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile over fears that Russia saw it as a threat. A week later, the United States rejected a proposal to supply the Ukrainian Air Force with 28 MiG-29 fighter jets for similar reasons. Throughout the war, Biden refrained from engaging in tit-for-tat nuclear threats in response to Putin’s fiery rhetoric.
At the same time, Washington and its allies have found ways to support Ukraine in its fight. At first, after Putin’s invasion on February 24, the United States and its European allies imposed sweeping economic sanctions. Then they increased the quantity and quality of weapons they supplied to Kyiv. As arms flows steadily increased, they began to provide arms training to the Ukrainian military outside the country.
The Biden administration has repeatedly insisted that US troops will not fight in Ukraine, but the president has stepped up defenses in neighboring countries by moving about 14,000 troops east into Europe, mostly Poland. to train and reassure allies. Ukraine is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but it borders four nations which are: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. The United States and other NATO allies are committed to protecting their Eastern and Central European members as part of the alliance’s Article 5 mutual defense commitments.
The United States also blames the escalation on Moscow’s doorstep. “The Russians can end this conflict whenever they want,” Kahl, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told Pentagon reporters. “If they’re suspicious of the escalation, all it takes is a man to say stop. And they can do it.
Kahl said it would take about three weeks for the United States and NATO to train the Ukrainians on HIMARS. “It’s important for them to train on the systems to become familiar with the systems,” he said. “We will be able to quickly provide additional ammunition, if needed, if the battlefield changes.”
HIMARS is a wheel-mounted version of the track-mounted Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) used by US and NATO forces in Europe. Each system fires six precision-guided rockets that will more than double Ukrainian artillery range from the current 20 miles with US-supplied M777 howitzers. This will be key in Donbass where the war has become an artillery duel with the two nations exchanging fire every day.
Read more: “Hope gives you the strength to act.” Portraits of Russians risking everything to support Ukraine
The Ukrainian army faces an escalation of fighting in the south and east against a much larger and more technologically advanced enemy. HIMARS won’t change that fundamental equation, Kahl said, but it will provide Ukraine with more ability to defend itself. “It’s an overwhelming conflict,” Kahl said. “No system will transform war. It is a battle of national will.
HIMARS’ announcement on Wednesday was part of a larger $700 million military aid package. The assistance includes a wide range of weapon systems for the Ukrainian military designed to help them fight the superior heavy forces that Russia is bringing to the field. The transfer includes Mi-17 helicopters, advanced radar systems, Javelin missiles and other anti-armour weapons.
The weapons and equipment are being sent under a so-called “presidential withdrawal authority,” which allows Biden to transfer materials from U.S. stockpiles without congressional approval to expedite delivery in an emergency. The Pentagon launched round-the-clock supply missions, delivering eight to 10 aircraft loads of anti-aircraft and anti-armour missiles, remote-controlled drones, ordnance and laser-guided rockets each day. Biden has now committed $5.3 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since taking office last year.
More Must-Have Stories from TIME