Democrats on Capitol Hill are divided on whether it’s time to start providing Ukraine with more advanced weapons systems as Kyiv proves itself capable with its recent counteroffensive.
Kyiv has reclaimed thousands of square miles of land in recent weeks that had been under Russian control since it launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. The Ukrainian effort has been buttressed by more than $15 billion in security assistance from the Washington.
But the Ukrainians have been asking Washington to provide longer-range systems for months — a call that hasn’t been met because the Biden administration has been cautious about providing weapons that would make longer range attacks on Russia possible.
In a Sept. 15 briefing, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, warned that the U.S. would “cross the red line and become a party to the conflict” if it sent longer-range missiles to Ukraine.
Some Democrats are satisfied with the more cautious approach of the Biden administration, but others think it’s time to meet Kyiv’s demands.
“The Ukrainians now are transitioning their force — they are starting to look more like a NATO military than a former Soviet Union, Warsaw Pact military. And what’s more is they’ve actually shown their ability to do that — to both fight and make that transition, and learn new systems at the same time,” Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.) told The Hill.
“So now it is time to start providing those more advanced systems — which the administration is doing — and continue to push them to do more of, and to do it on a faster timeline,” he continued.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said now is the time to make sure Ukraine can adequately defend itself in the winter months. He didn’t offer support for providing longer-range systems.
“I think that the systems that we’re giving them — and that we need to look at — are the systems that may be able to knock some of the incoming missiles from Russia coming in which is killing innocent Ukrainians … or to try to make sure that they have what they need to defend themselves from those kinds of missiles,” Meeks said.
“I think that, from what I understand thus far, what they have is sufficient to defend themselves,” he said.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) similarly said the administration has been working at the proper pace to give the Ukrainians the weapons systems they need.
“The Ukrainians can only support so many new weapons systems at any given time. The administration has been very careful to give them what they need without giving them systems beyond their operating ability. So, I think we’re working at the right pace when it comes to giving them increasing systems of increasing lethality,” he said.
The Biden administration so far has focused on providing Ukraine with the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which has the capability to strike targets about 50 miles away.
The administration has reportedly been deliberating over whether to send Kyiv the Army Tactical Missile System, a surface-to-surface system that can hit targets up to 186 miles away.
Ukrainian officials included the system in a list sent to lawmakers of items they would need to push ahead with the counteroffensive, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.
A U.S. official told The Hill that the administration primarily looks at what capabilities Ukraine can currently use on the battlefield. At this time, it feels that the Ukrainians don’t need weapons that can strike more than 50 miles away. But the administration is also concern about how Russia might react to an increase in Ukrainian capabilities — which it could see as escalatory.
Meeks said he shared the administration’s concerns about how Russia would respond to an increase in Ukrainian capabilities.
“I don’t want to us to look like we are the aggressors. Clearly the aggressor in this, by his statements, is Vladimir Putin. Clearly the one that’s been violating everything that there is to violate as far as the atrocities that are taking place in war crimes has been Putin. So that should not be us. We’re not them,” he said.
Democrats who want to see longer-range systems going to Ukraine also acknowledge the administration’s concerns, but don’t want a potential response from Russia to get in the way of providing the Ukrainians the capabilities they need.
“The administration has done a very nice job of assessing escalation challenges because that is something they have to take into consideration. They have to make sure that they’re not creating a broader conflict. But at the same time, the Ukrainians are going to be responsible about this,” Crow said.
The Colorado Democrat noted that he and other members spoke via phone on Tuesday morning with Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian presidential office. During the call, they were assured longer-range systems wouldn’t be used to strike directly into Russia.
“He said outright they would not use these systems to attack Russian territory. They know that we’re their biggest patron and supporter and they’re not going to jeopardize that,” Crow said.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) noted that previous U.S. support has not “caused Putin to do any of the insane things that some people feared that he would.”
“I would not worry as much about the political concerns that I’ve heard expressed in the past. If it’s useful, if it’ll help Ukraine win faster, if they’re able to use it within a reasonable amount of time, we should provide it,” Malinowski said.
“And if they’re not able to use it within a reasonable amount of time, we should also think about starting the process of training them for the future,” he added.
Even then, Democrats who want to see longer-range weapons sent to Ukraine say the U.S. could place conditions on how Ukraine uses the weapons systems it receives.
The Biden administration notably did this when it first sent Ukraine the HIMARS in June. At the time, the administration said it received assurances from Kyiv that the system wouldn’t be used to strike into Russian territory, but rather to hit Russian targets within Ukraine.
“We give advanced sophisticated weapons systems to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia, to countries that don’t share our values. We have end-use restrictions on those weapons such that if those countries use them in a place or manner that we don’t approve of, we can withdraw that support,” Malinowski said.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be applying restrictions to Ukraine, a country that shares our values and is fighting for our freedom as much as its own, that we don’t impose on a bunch of dictatorships in the Middle East,” he added.
Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) noted that the Ukrainians have been adhering to the U.S.’s conditions on the weapons systems already sent to Ukraine.
“You just saw that Russia is going to go through a mobilization. We also have seen the professionalism of the Ukrainian military and that they can handle these types of weaponry and use them in an effective manner. So, I think longer-range weapons will go a long way,” he said.