Why Biden is sending US weapons experts into Ukraine
The Pentagon announced this week that it is sending weapons experts into Ukraine to inspect American-supplied arms being used against Russia.
The group will be among the first U.S. military members in the country, apart from those providing security at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
President Biden has pledged that U.S. troops will not be sent into the fight, but this week’s announcement comes amid rising concern — particularly among Republicans — about how effectively Ukraine is utilizing U.S. military support.
A senior Defense Department official told reporters on Monday that it had not seen “credible evidence of the diversion of U.S.-provided weapons.”
“Nonetheless, we are keenly aware of the possible risk of illicit diversion and are proactively taking all available steps to prevent this from happening.”
The Pentagon has not said how many weapons experts are in Ukraine or where they will operate.
Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said Tuesday the “embassy personnel” would be “far away from any type of frontline actions.”
Ryder said the inspections had been “in development for a while,” though he did not say when the weapons experts arrived in Ukraine.
House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) set off a firestorm last month when he said a Republican majority would not issue a “blank check” to Ukraine.
McCarthy and other GOP leaders sought to clarify that the party would not seek to scale back support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, but instead wanted to increase oversight of U.S. aid.
“I think you’ll see if we get the majority, more oversight and accountability in terms of funding and where the money’s going, and I think the American taxpayer deserves that,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Bloomberg television last month.
Still, members of McCarthy’s own party have accused him of backing off Ukraine support as some on the right question the need to spend billions on the war.
“Maybe in his mind, he actually did believe that all he was saying is, ‘Hey, we want to have some oversight in this,’” Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told CNN. “But what he did … you’re giving aid and comfort to the enemy, intentionally or unintentionally.”
The U.S. has committed nearly $20 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since January 2021, including rocket and air defense systems that have helped counter Russia’s superior military might.
The Biden administration has pledged to keep up its support until the war is won; however, NBC News reported this week that Biden lost his temper with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a call over the summer.
The weapons inspections are part of a broader plan released by the State Department last week to counter the diversion of advanced weapons in Ukraine. It noted that Russian forces capturing the weapons was the main source of weapons loss so far in the war.
“Wars can provide opportunities for weapons to fall into private hands via theft or illicit sales, sometimes creating black markets for arms that endure for decades,” said a fact sheet on the plan.
To counter that risk, the U.S. will work with Ukraine’s military and other officials to better account for and safeguard weapons, identify and investigate suspected arms trafficking, and ramp up monitoring on Ukraine’s borders.
The Defense Department official said the weapons experts now in Ukraine have already conducted several inspections as part of the U.S. Defense attache in Ukraine and the U.S. Office of Defense Cooperation.
U.S. Marines have been stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv since it reopened in May, after closing at the start of the war in February.
Jeffrey Pryce, a former Defense Department special counsel now at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said the weapons experts were part of a “normalizing” of U.S. assistance after the surge in support this year.
“I think, in a way, the system is just catching up to some of the standard procedures for accountability,” he said.
“It doesn’t disincent accountability that there’s been some in Congress who are calling for accountability,” he added.
Pryce said he has not seen any evidence that Ukraine is misusing or selling off U.S. weapons.
“Ukrainians are fighting for their lives. They’re fighting for their country,” he said. “And I haven’t seen any evidence of significant diversion of the assistance that we’ve been providing.”
Updated: 2:51 p.m.
Ellen Mitchell contributed reporting