‘Not Looking For A Third World War’: Biden Keeps Reversing Course On Giving Weapons To Ukraine

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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President Joe Biden has changed course on at least seven occasions over what types of weapons to greenlight for Ukraine, including some that earlier on the administration considered to be potentially escalatory.

The Biden administration has approved more than $42 billion in weapons for Ukraine since August 2021 but has opposed sending American combat troops, a scenario the administration argues could amount to a third world war, according to The Washington Post. Administration officials say the pattern of reversing previous deferments comes from changing battlefield conditions and Kyiv’s anticipated needs, but it also comes as officials have consistently warned against sending some offensive capabilities for fear of provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin into a wider war, according to a Daily Caller News Foundation review. (RELATED: Biden’s Mixed Signals On Ukraine Aid Suggest Kyiv Must Earn Congress’ Future Support, Experts Say)

“We don’t have an interest in the conflict in Ukraine widening to a broader conflict or evolving into World War III, so we’ve been mindful of that,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said last June after the administration changed its thinking on HIMARS for Ukraine, according to Defense News. “But at the same time, Russia doesn’t get a veto over what we send to the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians didn’t start this war, the Russians did.”

FIM-92 Stinger

The U.S. began accelerating weapons supplies to Ukraine as Russian forces amassed near its border in the fall of 2021, but it wasn’t until days after the invasion that the Biden administration for the first time approved Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, according to The Wall Street Journal. In January, the U.S. had approved two European partners to transfer American-made Stingers to Ukraine.

Stinger missiles are shoulder-fired weapons equipped with infrared sensors that guide the missile toward the target and are capable of taking down Russian gunship helicopters, according to Business Insider.

M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS)

After months of internal wrangling, the administration relented and announced an initial delivery of the now-infamous HIMARS light wheeled multiple rocket launchers on June 1, just not those equipped to fire rockets at longer ranges, Politico reported. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said as a condition of providing HIMARS, Washington extracted a pledge from Kyiv to employ the system in defensive operations only and avoid firing into Russian territory, Defense New reported.

MIM-104 Patriot

The next capability Ukraine asked for was the Patriot surface-to-air missile defense system Kyiv said could protect its skies from Russia’s indiscriminate missile barrages on both civilian and military sites.

Obtaining and manning Patriots would strain Ukraine’s military in terms of training and munitions, as well as global demand for the rare, expensive systems and the types of missiles they fire, the administration argued. Despite these concerns, the Department of Defense announced it would provide one Patriot battery to Ukraine in December.

M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks

Similarly, the administration offered 31 U.S.-made M1 Abrams main battle tanks for Ukraine in late January after a barrage of demands from Kyiv for advanced western-made heavy tanks, a decision made apparently against the Pentagon’s initial recommendation.

Amid pressure from NATO, however, the administration authorized 31 Abrams, equal to one Ukrainian tank brigade, in the interest of maintaining a unified front and unlocking German-made Leopard 2s for Ukraine.

Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bombs

The administration initially sent HIMARS equipped to fire rockets with a 53-mile range, but in February delivered a supply of ground-launched small-diameter “smart bombs” that fire from HIMARS up to 94 miles.

Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICMS)

Friday’s security assistance package included an unspecified number of 155 mm DPICMS, or cluster munitions, which contain projectiles that burst in mid-air and disseminate smaller munitions over a large target area. Many countries have banned stockpiling or using the munitions because of their high fail rate and tendency to detonate when disturbed later by civilians.

Back in December, an administration official told Politico the White House was not completely against the idea of sending DPICMS to Ukraine, but it was not in active consideration.

“According to our own policy, we have concerns about the use of those kinds of munitions,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said at the time, according to Politico.

However, as the ongoing counteroffensive has dragged on longer than anticipated and may consume more 155mm rounds than the U.S. and partners can supply, “We need to build a bridge from where we are today to when we have enough monthly production of unitary rounds … to give Ukraine what it needs,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday.

The administration “deferred” the decision for some time, he added.

“It was a very difficult decision on my part,” Biden told CNN.

Honorable Mention: F-16 Fighting Falcon

After the tank announcement, Ukraine renewed public cries for F-16 multirole fighter aircraft. In January, Biden explicitly said F-16s for Ukraine were a “no,” Politico reported.

Then the administration did not rule out the possibility of eventually providing Ukraine with the fourth-generation jets in February but said they were off the table “for now.”

Finally, in May, the administration said it would support procurement of F-16s for Ukraine and training Ukrainian forces on the system, Politico reported. The question of what changed between January and May was one of determining whether Ukraine had the capabilities it needed for the short-term and the prospects of escalation, officials told the outlet.

Denmark and the Netherlands have plans to train Ukrainian troops on the fighters and other European nations are considering doing the same, according to several media reports, but no deliveries have been announced.

What Could Be Next? Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS)

Next up, the U.S. is considering ATACMS as Ukraine’s urgent need for firepower has begun to sway even the most opposed members of the White House, the WSJ reported on June 29.

Earlier in 2023, in a change of tune, the Biden administration told Ukraine it does not have sufficient spare ATACMS to send to Ukraine without detracting from U.S. readiness for future fights, Politico reported, citing four people with knowledge of the discussions.

Previously, the administration denied Ukraine’s request for ATACMS on the grounds that the HIMARS-fired rocket, which can reach targets up to 190 miles from the launch site, would allow Ukraine to strike Russian territory and violate Russian President Vladimir Putin’s red lines.

“The idea that we would give Ukraine material that is fundamentally different than is already going, there would have a prospect of breaking up NATO and breaking up the European Union and the rest of the world,” Biden said during a press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, according to Politico.

“They’re not looking to go to war with Russia. They’re not looking for a third World War,” he added.

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