The White House has two options here. Option one: Prioritize deescalation with Russia in order to avoid a wider war. Do what you can to help the Ukrainians but take care not to supply any weapons — like military aircraft — that might cross Russian “red lines.”
Option two: Prioritize Ukrainian self-defense by giving Zelensky the weapons he needs, whether or not doing so crosses Moscow’s “red lines,” and dare Putin to do something about it.
Gotta choose one, logically. But Biden may be trying to choose both. This soundbite from yesterday, in which he doubled down on using the word “genocide,” is what you’d expect to hear if he’d chosen option two.
President Biden stood by his earlier comments on Tuesday when he referred to Russia's invasion in Ukraine as "genocide" for the first time.
"Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of being able to be Ukrainian," he said. pic.twitter.com/Ep4jHhX8iJ
— CBS News (@CBSNews) April 13, 2022
If this war has lurched into genocide, the moral case for arming Ukraine with all available conventional means to end it is overwhelming. Zelensky recognized that too, which is why his office took to celebrating Biden’s comments last night:
True words of a true leader @POTUS. Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil. We are grateful for US assistance provided so far and we urgently need more heavy weapons to prevent further Russian atrocities.
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) April 12, 2022
Sure enough, Biden’s use of the word “genocide” was followed by news that the U.S. was about to vastly expand the universe of weapons it’s prepared to send to Ukraine. “Preliminary plans circulating among government officials and lawmakers in Washington also included Mi-17 helicopters, howitzer cannons, coastal defense drones and protective suits to safeguard personnel in the event of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack,” WaPo reported. And that’s not all: Ukraine’s ambassador has reportedly been meeting with American defense contractors to discuss purchasing Reaper and Predator drones. Ukrainian troops have used Turkish drones to devastating effect against Russian armor; American drones in the skies of Ukraine would make a Russian advance in the Donbas that much more difficult.
All in all, supplying choppers and artillery to Ukraine is a rational response to the changing face of the war. The battle in the east will be less a matter of Ukrainian ambushes based in urban areas than an old-school clash of armies on flat terrain. To push the Russians back and hopefully liberate cities like Kherson and Mariupol, the Ukrainians will need to be outfitted with the full complement of modern military equipment.
Which is why this report from Fox News is so shocking:
In an about-face move the Biden administration on Wednesday decided against providing Ukraine with Mi-17 helicopters despite informing Congress of its intention to do so a day prior, a senior U.S. defense official told Fox News.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki first announced the U.S.’s intent to send Ukraine Mi-17s in the lead up to the Russian invasion in January, though Fox News could not immediately confirm if this shipment was sent.
The U.S. has refused to provide warplanes to Kyiv despite Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s repeated requests for such aerial defenses.
The U.S. has voiced concern that providing warplanes could be aggressively interpreted by Russian President Vladimir Putin and spread the conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders.
My first thought was that maybe the Ukrainians are unfamiliar with the Mi-17 and training them to fly it would take too long. But that’s unlikely: The Mi-17 is a Russian-made Soviet-era aircraft that’s been around for nearly 50 years. And the White House wouldn’t have spent months chattering about potentially sending it to Kiev if there were an obvious logistical problem with doing so.
Another possibility is that the U.S. is opting to send Ukraine a superior alternative to the Mi-17. But what? We’re not sending them American helicopters, presumably, since they might not be able to fly them. And U.S. drones, while powerful, can’t transport Ukrainian troops. They’re not a one-to-one replacement for choppers.
So, a third theory: Did Russia phone the Pentagon yesterday and remind them that sending military aircraft to Ukraine, whether MiG-29s or Mi-17s, is a “red line”? That’s hard to grok since Moscow apparently doesn’t have similar objections to sending drones despite their lethal effect on the battlefield. If it did, Russia would be at war with Turkey right now. But there clearly does appear to be some reluctance among Ukraine’s western allies to send aircraft even as they happily arm Zelensky’s men to the teeth with all manner of other weapons.
Remember that Poland announced last month that it was willing to send its fleet of MiG-29s to Rammstein air base in Germany for delivery to the Ukrainians in exchange for U.S. F-15s. But the White House nixed that deal for fear that staging Ukrainian planes at a NATO base, however briefly, might expand the war:
🚨Pentagon nixes Polish plan to give MiG’s to Ukraine via Ramstein:
“departing from a U.S./NATO base in Germany to fly into airspace that is contested with Russia over Ukraine raises serious concerns for the entire NATO alliance…simply not clear there is substantive rationale.” pic.twitter.com/DQv5MlUcvX
— Jacqui Heinrich (@JacquiHeinrich) March 8, 2022
I think aircraft is a “red line” for Russia and Biden’s reluctant to cross that line, which is defensible *if* he thinks other weapons being supplied to Ukraine can fill the gap left by aircraft. But if he’s going to fret about Russian red lines then he has to stop the “genocide” talk. Or else admit that he’s willing to let the genocide drag on in the name of keeping NATO out of the war.
As I’m writing this, the White House has issued a readout of Biden’s latest phone call with Zelensky in which it says Biden *has* approved helicopters as part of the new weapons package. So maybe he’s choosing option two and crossing that red line after all:
New: Biden confirms $800 million in military aid is heading to Ukraine ahead of a new Russian offensive in the Donbas.
“These new capabilities include artillery systems, artillery rounds, & armored personnel carriers. I have also approved the transfer of additional helicopters.” pic.twitter.com/7ZjIgX8Gf0
— Andrew Desiderio (@AndrewDesiderio) April 13, 2022
JUST IN: Here's the full list of weapons part of the Biden administration's $800 million aid package for Ukraine. Of note, 155-millimeter howitzers and 40,000 artillery rounds. It's the first time the U.S. military has provided artillery pic.twitter.com/8kyaebBvho
— Marcus Weisgerber (@MarcusReports) April 13, 2022
Did the backlash from this morning’s Fox story spook the White House into pulling the trigger on the Mi-17s after all? Or did Fox simply get it wrong?
I’m guessing Fox had it right but then Zelensky changed Biden’s mind (again) during their call.
Here’s a rare English-language video in which he announces his shopping list to the world. Note how he stresses that there’s no substitute for military aircraft.
Without additional weaponry, this war will become an endless bloodbath, spreading misery, suffering, and destruction. Mariupol, Bucha, Kramatorsk – the list will be continued. Nobody will stop Russia except Ukraine with Heavy Weapons. #ArmUkraineNow pic.twitter.com/miSOL5zvuA
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) April 13, 2022