Biden doubles down on support for Ukraine, but shows limits

President Biden is once again ramping up U.S. support for Ukraine, vowing to send more advanced weapons to Kyiv with the express goal of helping the Ukrainians defeat the Russians. 

But the president is still exercising caution, reinforcing that his administration is not seeking a hot-war with Moscow or trying to depose Russian President Vladimir Putin, and issuing dire warnings against the prospect of a nuclear confrontation. 

Significantly, the new $700 million package the U.S. is readying for Ukraine for the first time contains High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, but says they are configured to limit their range to strike only Russian forces in Ukraine and not inside Russia.

The Ukrainians have given us assurances that they will not use these systems against targets on Russian territory,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

“And it is Russia, again, that chose to launch this aggression,” Blinken said. “They can end it at any time, and we will avoid any concerns about miscalculations or escalation.”

Biden made the decision to send Ukraine advanced rocket systems despite the risk that such a move would further amplify tensions with Moscow. 

Experts say that the new systems, which can reach targets up to 50 miles away, will be significant in assisting the Ukrainians push back on the Russian offensive as long as they are delivered quickly. 

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an interview Tuesday that “we’re not planning to attack Russia,” but called for the delivery of rocket systems “with the effective range of fire of over 100 kilometers [62 miles].”

“I know some of the people in the United States are saying, or people in the White House are saying, we might be using them to attack Russia: Look, we’re not planning to attack Russia,” he said in an interview with Newsmax

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday that the U.S. is “deliberately pouring oil on the fire” in response to the weapons-delivery announcement. 

Biden laid out his Ukraine strategy in a New York Times op-ed published Tuesday evening, which doubled down on U.S. support for Kyiv while also underscoring the limits to U.S. involvement in the conflict.

Biden reiterated that the U.S. would not put troops on the ground in Ukraine – something the American public does not support – and said the U.S. is not trying “to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.” 

And the president addressed concern over a nuclear war with Russia. 

“​​We currently see no indication that Russia has intent to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, though Russia’s occasional rhetoric to rattle the nuclear saber is itself dangerous and extremely irresponsible,” he wrote. “Let me be clear: Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences.”

Angela Stent, an expert in U.S. and European relations with Russia, said Biden’s op-ed seemed designed to demonstrate explicit public support for Ukraine while also removing any ambiguity about U.S. involvement in the war. 

“On the one hand, this is something new, we’re sending them these rocket systems, though he made clear we are not sending them rockets that would reach deep into Russian territory,” Stent said. “On the other hand, he’s making it pretty clear there are limits to what the U.S. is going to do.”

Some Ukrainian officials took issue with Biden’s blunt restrictions on Ukrainian military forces’ use of U.S. weapons.

“Some political signals that President Biden gives in his [New York Times] article have already been interpreted by Putin as a sign of insecurity about a wider conflict with Russia,” tweeted Anton Gerashchenko, adviser to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine.

“This can enhance Russia’s aggression against Ukraine even more.” 

The announcement came as Russia’s war in Ukraine closed in on its 100th day. While the Ukrainians have surprised the globe with their resilience and dealt the Russians some substantial losses over the course of three months, Moscow’s forces have also gained control of key areas, like the city of Mariupol. 

William Taylor, former ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Europe, Russia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP), said on Wednesday that the medium-range rocket launchers can begin to help Ukrainian’s push back against Russia’s bombardment in the south and east, but he added the conflict is “edging towards an uncomfortable stalemate.” 

“The Russians just have a lot of stuff. They’ve got a lot of artillery and they have a lot of ammunition and the Ukrainians don’t have as much artillery, and are short of ammunition” he said during a panel talk at the USIP. “It’s grim… Do they have enough? We won’t know until they win, and at which time we’ll say ‘yes.’”

The $700 million in weapons is the first drawdown of a potential $8 billion in military assistance the U.S. can provide out of the total $40 billion aid package passed by Congress last month.  

It’s unclear how quickly Biden will draw down from that amount. The U.S. delivered $3.9 billion in military assistance to Ukraine between February 24, the day Russia launched its invasion, and mid-May. 

Congress allocated the $40 billion package shortly before the previous aid package was used completely. The administration believes the assistance will be enough to sustain Ukraine through the current fiscal year, or through September, and it’s unclear if Biden will seek another tranche of assistance.

A third, billion-dollar aid package might face increased pushback from critical Republicans, especially in the lead up to the midterm elections. Fifty-seven House Republicans and 11 Republican Senators voted against the last package.

Some Republicans are criticizing Biden as failing to prioritize funding for the U.S. – to bring down inflation, cut rising gas prices and address supply chain issues — and have criticized the administration over unrelated issues like a baby formula shortage.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova told The Hill last month that it’s unclear how far the $40 billion will stretch for Ukraine’s needs. 

“How [long] it will last, nobody can tell you,” she said.

“What I can tell you is that we would like this war to stop as soon as possible… the faster we can get the multiple rocket systems, more artillery, more UAVs, everything that we have discussed with not only the U.S., but with more than 20 countries… we need as [many] weapons as we can get, in order to win faster.”