US faces increased pressure to help Ukraine with air defense

The pressure for the United States to send Ukraine more advanced air defense systems reached a new high Monday after Russia escalated its war on the country with a barrage of deadly missile strikes.  

The Kremlin attacks, which targeted civilian areas that for months had enjoyed a relative calm, has produced anew the argument that the West send Ukraine more high-tech air defense weapons, including those similar to Israel’s Iron Dome missile interception system. 

Washington has long resisted providing Kyiv with such lethal aid, fearing it could escalate the conflict and arguing it would be too complicated to train Ukrainian troops on the advanced systems. But the latest Russia atrocities could shift the wind in Ukraine’s favor, experts say. 

“Ukrainians have shown over and over again, if you give them the right tools to defend themselves, they will. Hopefully this moves the needle,” said John Spencer, a retired Army major and the chairman of Urban Warfare Studies at the research organization Madison Policy Forum. 

“If there are people on the other side of that fence, hopefully this is more supporting information that they needed to show that if we have something — whether it’s a rocket or an air defense system — we can give it.” 

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered a rain of cruise and ballistic missiles on Kyiv and nine other Ukrainian cities, killing at least 11 individuals and injuring at least another 64. 

Putin said the attacks were a “harsh” response to a Saturday explosion on the Kerch Strait Bridge, a crucial Russian rail and road line to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. The bridge is viewed as a key supply route for Moscow’s military offensive on the south of Ukraine.  

The strikes also follow embarrassing Kremlin losses in its so-called “special military operation,” with Russian troops pushed from thousands of miles of territory in a lightning counteroffensive by Ukrainian armed forces starting in September.  

Russia’s escalation has prompted international condemnation, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took to Telegram to plead for more air and missile defenses from the West — and soon.  

About 84 missiles were launched on Ukraine but its air defenses were able to down 43 of them, Kyiv’s forces said, pointing to successes with the Western-supplied military aid.  

Zelensky later on Monday revealed he had a “productive” conversation with President Biden on the matter, stressing that air defense “is currently the number 1 priority in our defense cooperation,” he wrote on Twitter

The White House released its own statement confirming the call and said that Biden “pledged to continue providing Ukraine with the support needed to defend itself, including advanced air defense systems.” 

The release did not give further details on what specific systems were discussed.  

Zelensky’s call for the protection of Ukrainian airspace is nothing new, as he has made the plea to the West since the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. 

The Ukrainian leader initially pushed for the United States and NATO to help establish a no-fly zone, but the ask was rejected by the administration and lawmakers in both parties. In order for such a plan to work, officials argued, the U.S. and other European countries would have to enforce it and shoot down Russian planes that came into Ukrainian airspace, potentially setting off a third World War. 

In recent months, Ukraine has refocused on its lethal aid wish lists in asking for Western help, specifically requesting more advanced air defense systems including the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS). The U.S.-Norwegian made system was recently promised to Kyiv by Washington but is not expected to get there for at least another month. 

What makes the medium-range air defense system so indispensable is its ability to identify and take out aircraft, cruise missiles and drones, protecting major assets or civilian populations. The Biden administration in late August approved the shipment of six NASAMSs to Ukraine but none have been sent yet.  

To speed along the system’s delivery, Ukraine’s top parliamentarian Ruslan Stefanchuk on Monday sent letters to U.S. congressional leaders calling on Washington to prioritize the shipments, Foreign Policy reported.  

The letter also reportedly asked for defensive weapons, including counter-rocket, mortar, and artillery systems, armaments that appear to now take precedent over the fighter jets and long-range rocket systems that Kyiv has asked for over the past several months.  

Another weapon at the top of Kyiv’s wish list is the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a surface-to-surface missile that can travel four times farther than anything Ukraine has now in its fight against Russia.  

The former Soviet nation has pressed the U.S. for ATACMS for months to protect against Russian’s invasion, but Washington has so far resisted, afraid the system would be used on targets within Russia’s borders. Ukraine, meanwhile, has stressed the missile would instead be used on Russian positions within Ukrainian borders.  

Retired Army Gen. George Joulwan, a former NATO supreme allied commander, even suggested that Ukraine needs air defenses similar to Israel’s Iron Dome missile interception system. 

“Well, it needs to be able to have some sort of air cap, or Iron Dome or some way to be able to take that initiative away from the Russians,” Joulwan told CNN. “And we’ve been kicking this around now for some time, but they need a way to protect themselves from both air and artillery strikes, which is the strength of the Russian military.” 

Ukraine has also turned to European leaders for help, with Zelensky noting that he had also spoken with the heads of the United Kingdom and Canada “regarding the protection of our skies,” and to stress that “Ukraine needs an air shield to protect civilians and critical infrastructure.” 

Beth Sanner, the former U.S. deputy director of national intelligence for mission integration, accused bigger allies, including Germany and France, for not “standing up” and providing more to Ukraine.  

“Germany promised four air defense systems in June. Not one has shown up and if they don’t want more refugees coming from Ukraine … it’s in their interest to do all they can to shore up Ukraine,” Sanner said on CNN Monday. 

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht later on Monday said the delivery of the vehicle-mounted Iris-T SLM systems was slated for the end of the year but will be sped up in light of the Kremlin rocket strikes.  

“The renewed missile fire on Kyiv and the many other cities show how important it is to supply Ukraine with air defense systems quickly,” Lambrecht said in a statement. 

European Parliament President Roberta Metsola also urged the EU to provide Ukraine with more military equipment in the wake of the Russian attacks. 

“I think all countries could and should do more,” Metsola told CNN. “What we’ve seen today shows that Russia will continue to escalate further … How are we going to respond? If our response is not proportionate to the escalation, then we’re just going to keep seeing him killing more people.” 

Lawmakers also joined in on the pressure campaign, with House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-Texas), urging the administration and U.S. allies and partners “to immediately ramp up security assistance to Ukraine in response, including longer-range artillery and additional air defense systems.” 

“Putin must be made to understand such brutal escalation and war crimes will not break the United States’ and the free world’s support of Ukraine,” McCaul said in a statement. 

This story was updated at 7:59 p.m.

Tags Biden Iron Dome Joe Biden russia ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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