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US Considers Sending Ukraine Military Equipment Once Bound For Afghanistan

A Mi-17 helicopter being serviced in July in Kabul / Paula Bronstein. The Biden administration is considering a plan to redirect helicopter...

A Mi-17 helicopter being serviced in July in Kabul / Paula Bronstein.
The Biden administration is considering a plan to redirect helicopters and other military equipment once allocated for the now-defunct Afghan military to Ukraine to help quickly reinforce its defenses amid a buildup of Russian troops near its border, U.S. and Ukrainian officials said.

The equipment is being sought by Ukraine, which discussed it with Pentagon officials, who generally support providing more arms to Ukraine. The National Security Council has yet to approve the arms delivery while the administration seeks a diplomatic solution to get Moscow to back off its military pressure campaign, the U.S. officials said.

The military kit previously earmarked for the Afghan National Security Forces includes Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters, U.S. officials said. The helicopters would provide more mobility for Ukrainian forces, which have a large front to defend and lost aircraft in clashes in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Moscow separatists rebelled in Ukraine’s east.

Ukrainian officials have also been lobbying the administration for air-defense systems, including Stinger surface-to-air missiles, that would help them defend their country against Russian aircraft, a Ukrainian official said. The country currently uses Soviet-era systems, which have been modernized but lag behind some of the high-tech equipment used by the Russian military.

A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to discuss what new weapons might be under consideration and pointed to the $2.5 billion in military aid the U.S. has provided Ukraine since 2014, including $450 million in support that is being sent this year.

With intelligence estimates saying Moscow’s troop buildup near Ukraine could reach full strength next month, the Biden administration is debating how to pursue diplomacy with Moscow and balance that with augmenting Ukraine’s military capabilities. For years, the U.S. has sought to walk a fine line by providing so-called lethal aid to Ukraine, such as antitank Javelin missiles, without provoking Moscow.

A military buildup along the Ukrainian border is further straining ties between Russia and the U.S., after clashes over cybercrime, expulsions of diplomats and a migrant crisis in Belarus. WSJ explains what is deepening the rift between Washington and Moscow. Photo Composite/Video: Michelle Inez Simon The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Some members of Congress and government officials said the National Security Council is wary of stepping up arms shipments for fear of escalating tensions with Moscow and setting back fledgling efforts to start talks with the Kremlin.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers who returned from a fact-finding trip to Ukraine earlier this month said that President Biden’s threat to impose economic sanctions isn’t sufficient to deter a possible Russian attack. They called for sanctions in advance of an attack and accelerated military support, including air-defense systems and antiship missiles that could be rapidly incorporated into Ukraine’s defense.

One of the lawmakers, Rep. Seth Moulton (D., Mass), said that the U.S. needs to be focused now “on deterring a conflict from happening versus responding to a conflict if it does happen.” “I want to give the Ukrainians defensive weapons that will have a high cost in terms of Russian casualties,” Mr. Moulton said. “The problem is more bureaucracy. It just seems like it’s taking a long time to just deliver the damn weapons. We’re just running out of time here. We need to speed things up.”

While U.S. officials say Russian President Vladimir Putin hasn’t decided whether to invade, Russia has publicly ratcheted up demands, with proposals published by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday calling for guarantees that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance won’t expand eastward, including by granting membership to Ukraine. Moscow is also concerned by Ukraine’s westward tilt. Though Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO isn’t an immediate prospect, the U.S. and allied nations have said that Russia can’t dictate who can join and they continue to train Ukrainian forces.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday that the administration is constantly assessing Ukraine’s additional military needs and that Mr. Biden will determine the next steps.

“Meaningful progress at the negotiating table, of course, will have to take place in a context of de-escalation rather than escalation,” Mr. Sullivan said, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations. “We should fundamentally be pursuing a combination of deterrence and diplomacy in an effort to see if we can produce exactly the de-escalation that we’re all seeking.” A Pentagon team went to Ukraine late last month to assess the Ukrainian military’s air defense capabilities and needs and is now working on a report, officials said. Many of the Ukrainian military’s deficiencies, however, are well known.

“They have a capable army, but they do not have the ability to adequately defend their air space or their sea space,” said Philip Breedlove, a retired Air Force general who served as the NATO commander when Russia annexed Crimea and intervened militarily in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian military has been interested in obtaining helicopters and munitions intended for the Afghan military after Mr. Biden announced in April the withdrawal of U.S. forces, according to Ukrainian and U.S. officials.

According to U.S. officials, among the options is sending five Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters that had been used by the Afghan Air Force but which were undergoing maintenance in Eastern Europe. The Afghan military was accustomed to flying Russian helicopters, a legacy from the years Afghanistan was a Soviet client-state, so the U.S. had bought and maintained some of those aircraft for its use before transitioning to supplying U.S.-made Black Hawks.

Ukraine is also seeking a dozen Black Hawk helicopters that the U.S. had offered to the Afghan Air Force but had not delivered. Pentagon officials declined to comment on a proposed transfer of materiel meant for Afghanistan to Ukraine. “We continue to work closely with Ukraine to evaluate the specific requirements of Ukraine’s forces,” said Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth, a Pentagon spokesman.

In addition, stockpiles of U.S. and NATO munitions and weaponry in Romania and Bulgaria could also be made available to the Ukrainian military if the decision is made to do so, U.S. officials said. “It’s hard to find military equipment that is in the pipeline that is not in use that is not deployed somewhere else,” a senior administration official said. The Defense Department “is looking at all options for getting as much defensive capability to Ukraine as quickly as we possibly can.”

The current Russian military buildup goes far beyond the force Moscow assembled in 2014 and 2015, and a Russian intervention this time could involve extensive air and missile strikes, former and current officials said. That has prompted some foreign policy analysts to warn that increased military support to Ukraine may merely alarm Moscow without altering the military balance. Members of Congress and officials urging more support, however, say that it would heighten the risk of Russian losses in a conflict and, thus, help deter the Kremlin from attacking.

President Biden has said that the U.S. won’t send its own troops to Ukraine but instead will rely on the threat of stringent economic sanctions, future military support to Kyiv and the deployment of additional American troops to NATO nations in Eastern Europe to dissuade the Russians from a military intervention. Aside from the military equipment previously intended for Afghanistan, the Biden administration is also weighing a separate Ukrainian request for Stingers and other air defense systems, but those have yet to be approved, U.S. officials said.

“If you want to have an effect, the question is what can you provide that could be immediately employed without extensive training or overhead in the next few months,” said Ben Hodges, a retired lieutenant general who led U.S. Army forces in Europe from 2014 to 2018. The Florida National Guard is currently training Ukrainian forces in the country. U.S. special operations forces have also been involved in the training effort, but the Pentagon has declined to disclose the number of personnel.