- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2022

Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee say red tape and the Biden administration‘s aversion to risk are holding up a deal to transfer Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine as Kyiv seeks to fend off a Russian invasion.

Weeks after Slovakia’s defense minister offered to provide Ukraine with S-300 surface-to-air missiles, the Pentagon has yet to hammer out an agreement and the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee said he can’t get a straight answer on what’s holding up the deal. Slovakia’s deal was contingent on getting assurances the missiles would be replaced, almost certainly by Washington.

“They’ve been working on it for two weeks,” Rep. Mike Rogers from Alabama said Thursday. “This is not brain surgery. We know what they need. We know what we’ve got. Give it to them.”

“There’s clearly some political reason why they’re not doing it,” he added. “I just want them to tell me.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pleaded with Western allies to help Ukraine battle Russia’s bombardment of his country with a NATO-enforced no-fly zone and fighter jets to protect Ukraine’s skies. NATO countries have rejected those requests for fear of being drawn into a direct war with Moscow.

Earlier this month, Slovakia’s Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad offered to transfer Soviet-era S-300 surface-to-air missile systems in Slovakia’s inventory to Ukraine, but said any transfer would require a “proper replacement.” But Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he did not have any immediate response on Slovakia’s offer or on whether the U.S. was ready to replace the missiles in Slovakia’s arsenal.

“These are things that we will continue to work on with all of our allies, and certainly this is not just a U.S. issue — it’s a NATO issue,” he said.

Germany and the Netherlands have begun transferring components of the U.S.-made Patriot missile defense system to Slovakia temporarily, but Slovakian officials say they need a more permanent solution before sending their S-300s to Ukraine. Republican lawmakers say the U.S. should step up and provide the backfill.

“We need to get them there because the [Slovaks] are ready to give them now,” Mr. Rogers said. 

Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander told a House Armed Services Committee hearing this week that the U.S. was still considering the proposal.

“We are working on this, and meanwhile we have focused on getting countries that hold Soviet legacy systems, including S-300 systems ― that have spare parts, missiles, different parts of that S-300 ― who are willing to send that to Ukraine,” she said before asking to provide more details in a classified setting.

On Thursday, Mr. Rogers said he had yet to receive a more detailed explanation behind the hold-up.

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Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the administration is closely considering Ukraine’s air defense requirements and is “working closely with allies and partners, including Slovakia,” which can best meet those requirements.

“The secretary of defense is personally engaged with allies on these issues, including during his three trips to Europe since mid-February,” Mr. Kirby said. “Regarding our close ally Slovakia, we remain actively engaged with the Slovak government on its proposal potentially to provide an S-300 to Ukraine and on Slovakia’s own air defense requirements.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher, Wisconsin Republican and a member of the committee, said the delay signals a lack of urgency from the administration.

“I know it’s complicated,” Mr. Gallagher said. “But when you have Slovakia offering to send [the S-300s], we have to take advantage of that. If it was a priority, I feel like we could get it figured out.”

President Biden has signed off on more than $1 billion in aid to Ukraine since the start of the war, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, Javelin anti-tank missiles and millions of rounds of small arms ammunition, while imposing harsh sanctions on the Russian economy.

“The U.S. is delivering a significant amount of security assistance every day, and we will continue to expedite shipments of the weapons Ukrainians need to defend themselves,” Mr. Kirby said. 

But the president has walked a fine line to avoid further escalating the war. Earlier this month, the administration scuttled an offer by Poland to supply Kyiv with Soviet-era MiG fighter jets that would be transshipped through a U.S. military base in Germany. The Pentagon said the Polish offer as structured was “not feasible” and could prove provocative to Russia.

A National Security Council spokesperson said that the administration “strongly” supports transferring anti-air systems to Ukraine

“We have provided more than 1,000 of our own anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine, and helped the Ukrainians acquire other Soviet- and Russian-made air defense systems they’ve been trained to use, including helping replenish munitions for those systems,” the spokesperson said. “We want to see air defense equipment continue to move into Ukraine, so we are working closely with our Slovakian allies on their requests.”

Mr. Rogers said the hangup with the Slovakian S-300 offer raises questions about whether other aid to Ukraine is being held up.

“If we can’t do this right, what makes us think we’re getting this aid to them in a timely fashion.”

Other Republicans have raised similar concerns.

House Oversight Committee top Republican Rep. James Comer, Kentucky Republican, on Thursday, penned a letter along with his GOP colleagues calling for the committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, New York Democrat, to convene an oversight hearing to ensure “the distributed effectively and efficiently to best support” the Ukrainian military and civilians.

“Russia’s war against Ukraine has led to thousands of civilian deaths, millions of refugees, millions more internally displaced, shortages of food, energy, and other necessities,” the lawmakers wrote. “We must ensure that typical red tape and federal bureaucracy do not delay this aid from reaching the Ukrainian people or lead to taxpayer dollars going to bad actors.”

• Joseph Clark can be reached at jclark@washingtontimes.com.

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