By Stephen M. Lepore
March 12, 2022
President Joe Biden on Saturday authorized $200 million in weapons and other assistance for Ukraine, the White House said, as Ukrainian officials said heavy shelling by Russian forces were endangering attempted evacuations.
The decision brings total U.S. security aid provided to Ukraine over the past year to $1.2billion, a senior administration official said.
In a memorandum to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Biden directed that up to $200million allocated through the Foreign Assistance Act be designated for Ukraine’s defense.
The funds can be used for weapons and other defense articles from the Defense Department’s stock, as well as military education and training to help Ukraine.
The fresh funds come days after the U.S. Congress approved $13.6billion in emergency aid for Ukraine as part of a $1.5trillion measure to fund the U.S. government through September.
This comes after Biden ignored desperate pleas from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and pressure from lawmakers at home and killed the Polish plan to transfer MiG-29 jets to Ukraine, fearing the deal might be viewed as an escalation of tensions by Vladimir Putin.
The diplomatic blunder that began with a top European Union diplomat promising the jets to Ukraine ended when Poland suggested it would give the jets to the U.S. to deliver to Ukraine, and the U.S. said that was Poland’s responsibility.
Then, U.S. defense officials killed the project entirely, saying they would not support either transferring the jets themselves or backing up Poland in doing so.
‘We do not support the transfer of the fighters to the Ukrainian air force at this time and have no desire to see them in our custody either,’ Press secretary John Kirby told reporters Wednesday, as he described the sentiment of a call between Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin and his Polish counterpart.
He said that the Pentagon had assessed the warplanes would not materially improve Ukraine’s defense posture, while it would escalate the prospects of drawing NATO, of which both the U.S. and Poland are a part, into direct conflict.
Critics have noted that the U.S. has already delivered hundreds of millions in lethal aid to Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to US lawmakers over the weekend and asked them help facilitate the transfer of jets, including MiG-29s, to Ukraine. Ukraine currently has between 37 and 70 MiG-29s.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused the U.S. and Poland of playing games with people’s lives. ‘Listen,’ the Ukrainian leader pleaded, ‘We have a war! We do not have time for all these signals. This is not ping pong! This is about human lives! We ask once again: solve it faster.’
‘Do not shift the responsibility. Send us planes,’ Zelensky demanded.
Zelensky spent 45 minutes on the phone with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday, where he begged her too for more jets. But skeptics within the Biden administration pushed back on the idea, and Biden himself agreed, according to Politico.
‘POTUS will do what the military advises here and the advice now is not to do this and instead send the Ukrainian government more things they can make good use of,’ a senior administration official told Politico. Ukraine has ‘many planes they already don’t fly much because of Russian air defense.’ The official added that it’s ‘not clear what sending more planes achieves.’
However, both Republicans and Democrats called on the Biden administration to heed Zelensky’s calls for more aircraft.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said it was time to make Putin ‘fearful.’
‘It’s time for Putin to be fearful of what we might do. This is war. People are dying. We need to get aircraft to President Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine immediately,’ he wrote on Twitter.
Senate Foreign Relations chair Bob Menendez, D-N.J., wrote to Blinken and Austin this week calling on the U.S. to commit to replacing any aircraft donated by Poland and other NATO countries to Ukraine with American planes.
‘The Ukrainians are getting bombarded, and they do not have ― at least as their country’s leaders suggest and assert ― the wherewithal to compete in the sky,’ Menendez said during a committee hearing Thursday with defense officials.
‘I understand why NATO and the United States are not engaged in a no-fly-zone ― that it has potential direct conflict with Russia ― but I don’t understand why we are not working expeditiously to facilitate planes to Ukraine.’
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, questioned why the U.S. felt comfortable sending Javelins and Stinger missiles but felt providing planes was too escalatory.
‘So you’re saying that we would like to send something that’s more effective that should offend Vladimir Putin more than the airplanes, and yet we cannot send the airplanes? What’s the logic behind that,’ said Portman during the hearing.
The U.S. had a long list of logistical concerns in transferring the aircraft – and as Biden has promised not to put boots on the ground in Ukraine, U.S. pilots could not fly the planes into the war zone.
The administration also considered the transfer of fighter jets to be a more aggressive move than providing Ukraine anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles.
Officials also said that the transfer may have been possible if it had been kept under wraps, Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs and security policy chief, rendered a secret mission impossible when he announced to reporters that the European bloc would provide the jets, to the shock and dismay of many U.S. and European officials.
Kyiv was only interested in handful of aircraft that its air force is familiar with, (which excludes U.S. jets) – the MiG-29, the Su-25, and the MiG-21. These aircraft are currently used by Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland, and Slovakia.