By BETSY WOODRUFF SWAN and PAUL MCLEARY
The Biden White House has temporarily halted a military aid package to Ukraine that would include lethal weapons, a plan originally made in response to aggressive Russian troop movements along Ukraine’s border this spring.
The aid package would be worth up to $100 million, according to four people familiar with internal deliberations.
The National Security Council directed officials to put the package together, as Washington grew increasingly concerned over a massive Russian military buildup near the border with Ukraine and in the Crimean Peninsula, according to three of the people, who like the others asked not to be named in order to speak candidly about internal discussions. Officials at the State Department and Pentagon worked to assemble the proposal.
But officials on the National Security Council ended up putting the proposal on hold after Russia announced it would draw down troops stationed near Ukraine and in the lead-up to President Joe Biden’s high-stakes summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
One of the sources said the package is still intact, and could be sent to Ukraine quickly. The Washington Post first reported that the administration considered and has now frozen the package. The fact that National Security Council officials froze the aid and the specific weapons discussed for inclusion in the aid package have not been previously reported.
Key items under consideration for the package include short-range air defense systems, small arms and more anti-tank weapons, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.
Since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, the United States has provided some $2.5 billion in military aid to Kyiv, including unarmed drones, radios and Javelin anti-tank missiles.
The latest proposal came about after Russia staged more than 100,000 troops, along with rocket battalions and heavy armor units, near Ukraine’s border this spring, according to estimates. In late April, Russia’s defense ministry announced that it would begin withdrawing some of the troops.
Past discussions over lethal military aid to Ukraine have been politically fraught, given concern over provoking Russia, issues with training the Ukrainian forces themselves, and ongoing uneasiness over corruption in the Ukrainian government and military.
But despite Russia’s announcement, a top Ukrainian official said in May that about 100,000 Russian troops were still near its border and in Crimea, Al Jazeera reported. That same month, Biden officials told The New York Times that the number was closer to 80,000.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced in May that Moscow was in the process of building 20 new military units to base in Western Russia, close to the Ukrainian border over the next year, though he was vague on specifics.
Satellite imagery captured by Maxar in May and June of this year shows that hundreds of trucks and other heavy equipment remain staged in newly constructed makeshift bases in Western Russia and at a major training range in Crimea.
“The reason they left those units is because they said that they intend to use them in Zapad 2021,” a large military exercise Russia holds every several years with Belarus involving tens of thousands of troops, said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA. Moscow had already transported heavy armor, rocket units and other equipment from their home bases in Central Russia, “and they didn’t want to drag them back. That was their argument, and we’ll see,” Kofman added. The last Zapad exercise was held in 2017, and the next one is set for September.
The photos show fully stocked motor pools near the town of Voronezh in Western Russia and the Opuk Training Center in Crimea.
The rapid buildup alarmed the Biden administration and European allies, as the scale of the Russian maneuvers — heavy armor, reserve troops, a field hospital and kitchens shipped from bases hundreds of miles away — gave the impression of a force primed and ready to conduct extended operations. The buildup was larger than what was seen during the 2014 invasion of Ukraine.
The vehicles and equipment near the city of Voronezh belong in part to the 41st Combined Arms Army, a modernized unit that includes mobile infantry units, rocket brigades and heavy artillery units.
Kofman said the area around the border has been staffed by units with “pretty high levels of readiness and a lot more modernized equipment” than had been stationed there in previous years.
American aid to Ukraine has drawn intense scrutiny in the past. In 2019, Trump moved to block the delivery of lethal aid to Ukraine as part of an effort to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation connected to Biden’s son. Zelensky made no such announcement, and the hold-up triggered the first impeachment
of Trump. At the time, congressional Democrats were vociferous about the importance of the U.S. providing support to the war-weary country.
The Pentagon has approved two aid packages to Ukraine this year alone, totaling $275 million. The first, in March, added two more armed Mark VI patrol boats to the Ukrainian fleet, part of a larger, $600 million deal for 16 of the boats signed in 2020.
The package included 32 Seahawk A2 gun systems and dozens of 30mm cannons for the shallow-water boats, which gives them offensive power.
In June, another $150 million congressionally mandated package was approved. It does not appear to include any lethal aid, but instead will ship several radar systems designed to track incoming artillery rounds and drones, which have played a large role in the fighting in eastern Ukraine over the past several years.
Despite the military aid and the presence of NATO troops in the country to train Ukrainian military units, Kyiv likely has a long road ahead before it can join the transatlantic alliance.
But the positive noises the alliance makes can sometimes lead to awkward moments.
During the NATO summit on Monday, Zelensky tweeted that NATO leaders had “confirmed” his country would become a member, reading boilerplate language in the annual communique as a confirmation of his country’s status.
Asked about the country’s admission status, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pumped the brakes in a Tuesday news conference. “Ukraine is an aspirant country,” Stoltenberg said. “We provide support to them, especially to continue to modernize and refine their defense and security institutions, civilian-political control over their security services, and not least fighting corruption.”
Biden also stuck to the traditional NATO line during his own press conference after the summit, saying the U.S. would “do all that we can to put Ukraine in the position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression.”