Fears grow that time is running out to deliver Ukraine aid

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Fears are growing on Capitol Hill that the window to deliver critically needed military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine is quickly closing.

Backed by the United States and other NATO allies, Ukrainian forces have defied all expectations, mounting a fierce resistance to the superior forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kyiv remains under Ukrainian control, the skies over the country are contested, and there are signs of waning morale among Russian troops, who were apparently unaware they'd be asked to use lethal force against their fellow Slavs.

Russian forces in response have escalated attacks on civilian targets while making gains in the south, including taking control of Europe's largest nuclear power plant in southwestern Enerhodar.

The developments have stirred new concerns, heightening lawmaker urgency to get aid to Ukraine quickly, before supply chains are cut off.

"It's urgent as all hell," said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "The Russians are regrouping. Now is a window to get weapons in to them so that they're ready once the Russians have regrouped."

"Time is really of the essence," he added.

In providing aid to Ukraine, the U.S. and its allies are facing an enormous logistical obstacle: Because Ukraine is not a part of NATO, Western leaders have ruled out the option of engaging Putin's forces directly. That's meant not only keeping combat troops outside Ukraine's borders but also refusing to deliver aid directly inside Ukraine for fear that even the slightest encroachment could trigger a violent response from the enigmatic Putin, who has already ticked his nuclear forces into higher alert.

"That's a provocation that we're not willing to take a risk on," said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), an Iraq War veteran and member of the Armed Forces panel. "The problem is we just don't know what Russia's thinking anymore. Clearly they're not rational actors."

Similar concerns have led the United States and NATO to reject any effort to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which officials in Kyiv are desperate to establish.

"You can't just say there's a no-fly zone. You have to implement it," said Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.), a Navy veteran who also sits on the Armed Services panel. "That would put U.S. or NATO aircraft directly in contact with Russian aircraft. ... It wouldn't be much different than boots on the ground."

The hands-off approach has forced the U.S. and its allies to set up staging sites in the neighboring NATO-aligned countries, most notably Poland, which shares more than 300 miles of border with Ukraine. It's also left Ukrainian forces with the additional responsibility of shuttling the supplies into their country themselves.

"You fly them to Warsaw or other Polish cities, and Poland allows Ukrainians to pick them up at the border and take them into western Ukraine," explained Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"The Ukrainians would prefer that we just fly them [in]. But I don't think we're going to see Americans with guns over or in Ukrainian territory," he continued. "Poland is showing real courage in doing this. They're going to have to live next to - or near - Russia for a long time. Hopefully not next to."

The deliveries into Ukraine are taking place on the ground, Sherman said, along the same borders that hundreds of thousands of refugees are racing to cross in the other direction. The system leaves the aid vulnerable to weather, road conditions and Russian forces scrambling to prevent the munitions from reaching the hands of Ukrainian soldiers.

"There's no question that Russia's current strategy is to surround these major cities, in part to cut them off from these supplies," said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), another Iraq War veteran and member of the Armed Services panel. "We recognize that the window may very well be shrinking."

Lawmakers and administration officials have been exceedingly reluctant to describe those operations in detail, for the obvious reason that it would tip off Russia to how the aid is moving into Ukraine - and how to stop it.

Pentagon officials last week briefed the Armed Services Committee on the logistics of getting the aid across - with multiple warnings that "any details about this could put it at risk," said Luria.

"We're going to get it there," Smith said. "But the less people know about that, the better."

In a rare twist for Washington, the challenges are not political. Democrats and Republicans alike are rallying behind President Biden's call for emergency assistance, impelled by the global outrage toward Putin, the countless tales of Ukrainian heroism in the face of bleak odds and the grim threat that the number of civilian casualties could soon explode.

More than a million Ukrainians have already fled the country, creating a humanitarian crisis being aired across cable news and social media, and U.S. officials expect the number to get much larger.

The Biden administration has already earmarked $350 million in lethal aid for Ukraine, of which "a vast majority" has already been delivered, the Pentagon said Friday. On top of that, Biden last week requested that Congress provide an additional $10 billion, divided between military and humanitarian assistance - funding expected to move through Congress this week.

Smith emphasized that the additional funding would go to "backfill" Pentagon coffers that the administration is tapping already in order to get the aid out immediately.

"The president is not waiting for Congress to act to help Ukraine," he said. "As we all know, that's happening right now."

On the military side, the U.S. has provided a host of weapon systems deemed appropriate for the unique circumstances, including portable anti-aircraft missiles, known as Stingers, and portable anti-tank missiles, called Javelins.

Other Western allies have offered an array of additional weapons, including small arms and ammunition. Drones provided by Turkey have also proved effective, allowing Ukrainian forces to evade radar and hit Russian targets, according to Ukrainian officials.

Still, the Ukrainian forces are badly outgunned by Putin's military might. And while military experts have been stunned by the effectiveness of the Ukrainian defense thus far, the widely held expectation is that Russian forces will ultimately seize Kyiv and the other major cities. That could set the stage for a long and bloody fight against an underground Ukrainian resistance - a fight that would still rely on Ukraine's success getting Western aid into the country.

"There may be a second stage of this fight, a guerrilla stage, where the Russians control all the ports of entry, or points of entry, from Poland, from Romania," said Sherman. "And at that point the question is, how can Ukrainian guerrillas or partisans pick up these weapons and smuggle them into Ukraine?"

Meantime, Western leaders are scrambling to get as much aid into Ukraine as possible - and to do it as quickly as they can, before the window closes further.

"The more weaponry we can get to them in this window, the better able they'll be to defend themselves," Smith said. "It's a logistical challenge, without question."