- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2023

It’s a familiar pattern that has played out throughout the year-old Russia-Ukraine war.

Ukraine asks Washington for a specific weapon, vehicle or piece of military equipment to use against the invaders. A reluctant Biden administration initially says no, fearing the move could inflame tensions with Russia and escalate the conflict. Then public pressure and behind-the-scenes cajoling from Kyiv, Capitol Hill and elsewhere persuade the White House to fulfill the request.

The slow-motion theatrics are playing out now with F-16 fighter jets and the U.S. Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has publicly pushed for F-16s for months and said the aircraft would be a game-changer for his country. The U.S. has long been wary that the move could draw the West into a direct war with Russia, but President Biden this week encountered protesters in Poland calling on him to send the jets.

Is history about to repeat itself? Some key lawmakers say the tide is rapidly turning in Ukraine‘s favor and that Russia‘s threats to retaliate are increasingly hollow.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul told reporters this week while visiting Kyiv that White House and Pentagon officials are still debating among themselves whether to send F-16s or ATACMS.

“But I’m seeing increasing momentum towards getting the artillery and the planes in,” the Texas Republican said, according to Reuters. “And in any event, we can start training the pilots right now so they’re ready.”

SEE ALSO: Part Three: Russia-Ukraine war resets world order

While Mr. Biden was in Kyiv this week, the administration announced a fresh package of more than $450 million in military aid for Ukraine. The State Department explained that the package includes “additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems,” or HIMARS, a U.S. system that is technically capable of firing ATACMS.

The Wall Street Journal reported in December that the U.S.-provided HIMARS have been modified so they couldn’t fire ATACMS or similar weapons. So far, the administration has publicly stood firm against sending the missiles, which have a range of nearly 200 miles.

“Our view is that we think the Ukrainians can change the dynamic on the battlefield and achieve the type of effects they want to push the Russians back without ATACMS,” Defense Undersecretary for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters last month.

Critics say the system would fill a key gap in Ukraine‘s capabilities.

“These missiles would allow the Ukrainian military [to] strike high-value targets deeper within occupied Ukrainian territory, helping to blunt Russia‘s offensive and facilitate Ukraine‘s own counteroffensive,” John Hardie, Russia Program deputy director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote this week.

“The risk of Russian retaliation is overstated, and the administration‘s latest argument that it doesn’t have enough missiles to spare doesn’t pass muster,” he said. “The United States has invested tens of billions of dollars in helping Ukrainians defend their homes from Russian aggression and retake their territory. It would be foolish now to withhold a key capability that can help Kyiv make good on that investment.”

Russian officials have seemed to warn of escalation if the U.S. sends F-16s or ATACMS. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov last month called such deliveries an “element of psychological warfare” against Russia that represented “the most dangerous path” for the West to take.

The Kremlin has lobbed such threats on numerous occasions, but the administration has eventually acquiesced and given Ukraine what it wants.

In the early weeks of the war, the administration refused to send Patriot missile defense batteries to Ukraine. Officials privately argued that U.S. troops would need to enter Ukraine to teach troops how to use the system and that such a step was out of the question.

In December, the administration gave in to pressure from both sides of the Atlantic and sent a Patriot battery to Ukraine.

The administration changed course this year on M1-Abrams tanks and agreed to send them to Ukraine as part of a NATO push to add heavy ground vehicles to the fight. The administration initially appeared reluctant. Officials said the Abrams is a “very complicated” piece of equipment, as Mr. Kahl described it last month, and might not be the best choice for Ukraine.

Part of the explanation for the administration‘s repeated course changes has been the trajectory of the war. Ukraine has fared much better than initially expected, and what once seemed inconceivable — a definitive Ukraine victory over Russia — may be possible, if still something of a long shot.

That dynamic keeps forcing Mr. Biden to cross his own red lines to make good on his promise to provide Kyiv with the tangible battlefield tools needed to win the war.

“We’re going to stand with you as long as it takes,” the president said in his State of the Union address this month.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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