US military’s slow slide into confrontation with Russia over Ukraine

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In early March, defense officials even avoided confirming that the first Stinger missiles were being sent to Ukraine amid fears of an escalation in the conflict as Russian troops marched towards kyiv, and defense analysts counted the days until Russian President Vladimir Putin likely controls the government of his next-door neighbor.

But over the past two months, as Ukraine has taken a stand and fought back against the invasion, aid has soared to billions of dollars worth of newly developed helicopters, armored vehicles, drones and artillery.

Reports this week that US intelligence helped Ukraine sink a Russian warship and kill Russian generals on the battlefield were the latest signs of what appears to be the slow and steady march of the Pentagon towards deeper involvement in European warfare.

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The Pentagon has now decided to publish detailed lists of the thousands of weapons, ammunition and equipment currently being shipped to allies in kyiv. He also announced a new Florida National Guard mission to train Ukrainians on howitzers and radar systems in Germany, creating a rotating pipeline of trained troops to fight the Russians.

The use of US intelligence in the sinking of the ship Moskva by Ukrainian missiles and the staggering loss of a dozen Russian generals in the war has not been publicly acknowledged by the Pentagon, despite reports from several news outlets. Still, the military has been recognized as sharing vital battlefield intelligence with Ukraine.

“We try to provide them with useful, relevant and timely intelligence so they can better defend themselves,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Friday. “But ultimately they decide what to do with that information.”

The loss of Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, and the loss of generals were an international embarrassment for Moscow, if not strategic victories that shifted the momentum to Ukraine.

The changing US involvement is at least partly due to the changing nature of the war, which began on February 24 when Putin invaded Ukraine. At the start of the conflict, the Ukrainians were seen as outsiders, but Putin’s forces failed, and the United States and the West grew bolder in helping kyiv.

The war has now shifted to eastern Donbass, a flat region where artillery will play a key role in the fighting as it expands into its third month. Ukrainian requests for larger armor and weapons were granted.

The Pentagon has been authorized to send about $4 billion in security aid to Ukraine since the war began, most of it in the past month. In mid-April, President Joe Biden ordered the first 18 M777 howitzers and 40,000 rounds sent to Ukraine. The announcement detailed 1,400 Stinger missiles and 5,500 shoulder-fired Javelins, as well as 22 other categories of battlefield weapons and supplies, including armored personnel carriers, helicopters, radars and drones.

Another 72 howitzers and 144,000 rounds, along with vehicles to tow the guns, were authorized by Biden on April 21 — a massive increase from the first tranche. The president is now asking Congress to approve a $33 billion aid package for Ukraine, $16 billion of which is earmarked for the Pentagon.

On Friday, the White House announced a new set of “artillery munitions, radars and other equipment”. The new aid amounts to $100 million, according to Reuters.

In addition to the massive increase in weapons destined for Ukraine, the Pentagon announced that US troops would begin training Ukrainians on the equipment. A Florida National Guard unit recently withdrawn from Ukraine on the eve of the Russian invasion had never left the mainland and is now leading that mission, he said last week.

The 160 Guard soldiers assigned to the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, known as Florida’s “Gator Brigade”, train Ukrainians on M777 howitzers and radar systems in Grafenwoehr, Germany, and other sites in Europe that the Pentagon did not disclose.

So far, the Guard has trained 150 Ukrainians on howitzers. Fifteen others have undergone training on the AN/MPQ-64 Sentinel air surveillance radar system and 60 on the M113 armored personnel carriers, Kirby said on Friday. Another 50 are in training on the M113 now, he said.

The military’s involvement in the war in Ukraine has “absolutely” increased since the start, said Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I see two things happening. One of them is an increased willingness to talk about what we’re doing,” Cancian said. “If you are an administration criticized for not doing enough, the tendency is to say more about what you are doing.

“But there’s no doubt we’re doing more as time goes on,” he said.

At the beginning of the war, the United States was sending Javelins and Stinger missiles which cost around 50 million dollars a day. Last month, that average was closer to $100 million a day, according to Cancian.

The Ukrainians had already trained on these weapons, as well as some of the other Soviet-era weapons the West had supplied to aid in its war effort. But adding American weapons, such as the M777 howitzer and the Sentinel radar system, required training, which required the expertise of the Guard.

“Each stage you can see both an increase in cost and an increase in scope of activity,” Cancian said.

The next stage of US involvement will likely be the addition of defense contractors to Ukraine to maintain the influx of US weapons systems, which are pouring into Ukraine and in danger of being sidelined without proper handling. and proper care, Cancian said.

Biden has insisted that US troops will not enter Ukraine. But the administration could find a workaround by funding Ukrainian maintenance contracts with foreign companies, he said.

“All the equipment we give the Ukrainians is just too much to absorb in the short amount of time we give them,” Cancian said. “I think we’re asking too much, frankly, and I think what’s going to happen is, when it becomes clear, we’ll start using contractors one way or another.”

— Travis Tritten can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

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