WASHINGTON – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has pledged to continue sending American Javelin anti-tank weapons and other aid to Ukraine, even if Russia expands its invasion, but discussions about the logistics are still underway, according to a senior defense official.
U.S. officials have sought to deter Russia through diplomacy, economic sanctions and warnings that Ukrainian forces are better trained and better armed than in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and fueled a bloody separatist movement in the eastern part of that nation. Since 2014, the U.S. has committed more than $2.7 billion in security assistance to build the capacity of Ukraine’s forces, including more than $650 million in 2021 alone.
Without explaining how, State Department spokesman Ned Price said last week U.S. aid to Ukraine “would be accelerated in the event of additional Russian aggression,” and that even if the Ukrainian government were to fall, “defensive security assistance will continue.”
That aid has most recently been transported by aircraft into Ukraine, but that approach may not work if Russia gains control of Ukrainian airspace or if flying conditions simply become too dangerous. On Wednesday, a senior defense official said the logistics are not a settled matter.
“There are different ways you can help provide support, and we’re exploring those ways in case air transport’s not possible,” the official said, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity. “Whatever support they continue to get, we want to make sure that it’s appropriate to the need and that it can be done safely and effectively.
“We’re examining how support can be provided in a post-invasion scenario, and no final decisions about the mechanisms have been made yet,” the official added.
Austin and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba discussed continued U.S. aid during a Tuesday meeting at the Pentagon.
“The secretary made it clear that we would continue to look for ways to provide lethal and non-lethal assistance to Ukrainian armed forces going forward,” the official said. “This was not designed to enact some sort of formal agreement, but the secretary did commit as the president has committed, that we’ll continue to look for ways to to provide lethal and non-lethal assistance to Ukraine.”
On Feb. 10, Ukrainian ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova and Maj. Gen. Borys Kremenetskyi, the country’s defense attaché, toured Dover Air Force Base in Delaware as workers loaded pallets of Javelin missiles onto at least one Ukraine-bound commercial plane. A similar shipment was packed onto another commercial aircraft at Travis Air Force Base, California, on Jan. 22.
“We express our gratitude to the United States for the unwavering support of Ukraine and strengthening the defense capacity of the Ukrainian army,” the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington said in a Feb. 10 Facebook post.
Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, cheered each shipment of foreign aid on Twitter.
“Birds are flying!” he said Feb. 11. “The total weight of US military aid at the moment exceed[s] 1,300 tons!”
He announced the arrivals of helmets and grenade launchers from Poland, and ammunition like Stinger surface-to-air missiles from Latvia and Canada, as the latest in a stream of incoming help on Wednesday.
The prospect of an air connection into the country becoming unavailable puts the spotlight on the Poland-Ukraine border. American diplomats have used Poland as a retreat for embassy staff that left Kyiv and, later, Lviv in western Ukraine.
The U.S. Army, in particular, has a history of routing forces and equipment through Poland, as officials have used adjacent western Ukraine as a safe locale for U.S. military observers tracking fighting in the Donbas region since 2014.
Polish officials have only recently started talking publicly about their military support for Ukraine, and the prospect of their country becoming a key transit hub for Western weapons raises the stakes of a very “technical” and “delicate” matter, as one official put it.
Evelyn Farkas, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should ask the United Nations to endorse a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine to try and take Russian air power off the board. Failing that, western aid to Ukraine will likely have to find a land route.
“Coming over land through Poland, rather than through the air or by maritime means, would be my guess,” Farkas said. “Our military can do it in a way that minimizes the risk, but clearly, if Russia controls the airspace over Ukraine, that’s a problem.”
The large city of Lviv, far from the Russian border, is a possible hub for arms transfers by land or by air, according to retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Europe from 2014 to 2017. In the near term, it’s unlikely Russia would control Ukraine’s airspace or destroy Lviv’s airport ― a significant escalation ― but even then, there are other avenues to supply Ukraine.
“You could use contract trucks, driving from Poland into Lviv if you didn’t want to have U.S. military on the ground who could drive it to Lviv or distribute it further,” Hodges said. “You could fly into Lviv with non-military aircraft.”
Using the Black Sea as a supply route could depend on buy-in from Ankara, which controls the adjacent Turkish Straits, and Russia’s been using portions of it for live-fire exercises. But the Black Sea provides access to the Danube River, which has three Ukrainian ports.
“There is some capability there,” he said of the Danube River, “but the Russians would try to disrupt that as well.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.