President Joe Biden’s latest plan to send advanced rocket launch systems to Ukraine to help defend against Russian advances is already sending Moscow into a rage.
Ukrainian officials have been pleading for months for the U.S. to send the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which will allow them to better target Russian forces from afar, but the Biden administration had held off on providing them out of a concern that the Kremlin might interpret the transfer as an escalation.
And while administration officials have received assurances from Ukrainian officials that they won’t use weapons they’re receiving from the United States on targets in Russia, Russian officials are already sounding the alarm.
“In order to trust, you need to have experience of cases when these promises were kept. Unfortunately, there is no such experience at all,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
The U.S. Department of Defense formally announced its plan to send Ukraine HIMARS Wednesday as part of the latest $700 million security package for Ukraine. But the Biden administration is only sending medium-range rockets, which can travel nearly 50 miles, according to Army specifications. And while the systems can use longer-range rockets capable of traveling nearly 200 miles, those are not in the mix for the current aid package, administration officials said.
Nonetheless, Kremlin officials said they aren’t convinced the Ukrainians won’t strike into Russia.
“We believe that the United States is deliberately and diligently adding fuel to the fire,” Peskov said.
Meanwhile, Russian forces continue to fire missiles throughout Ukraine and attack Ukrainian infrastructure as the war nears its 100th day, according to a Wednesday U.K. intelligence brief.
The hypocrisy of the Kremlin’s fears that Ukraine might fight back is just another example of how Russia wants to have its cake and eat it too, said Steve Pifer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.
“It's a very strange war that the Kremlin wants to fight in which the Russians reserved the right to strike a target anywhere in Ukraine, but it's somehow out of bounds for Ukraine to attack targets in Russia,” Pifer, who previously also worked at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, told The Daily Beast.
“If the Russians are trying to define rules of war, where 'we get to strike the other guy whenever we want, and they can’t strike us in certain places,' it’s just a bizarre concept of war—particularly a war that the Russians launched,” Pifer said.
U.S. Defense Undersecretary for Policy Colin Kahl acknowledged Wednesday that there are risks for escalation, but noted that Russia can't have a veto over what the Biden administration sends to Ukraine while Russia continues to attack Ukraine.
“We are mindful of the escalation risks,” Kahl told reporters Wednesday, adding that the United States received guarantees from Ukraine that they would only use the systems defensively. “We are constantly assessing this. But we are not the ones provoking Russia, and Ukraine is not the one provoking Russia. The Russians engaged in this further invasion of Ukraine completely unprovoked.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said it is concerned that Ukraine is trying to broaden the war, which Russia continues to claim is just a “special” military operation. Ukrainian leadership’s repeated demands that the West supply weapons and equipment to Ukraine represent an attempt to rope the West into the war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed Wednesday.
“This is a direct provocation aimed at drawing the West into hostilities,” Lavrov said in Riyadh Wednesday.
Reading between the lines, the Kremlin statements are likely aimed at trying to get the Biden administration to back off from providing support to Ukraine, Pifer said.
“The Russians want to make it look like anything that the West does to support Ukraine is escalatory because they are trying to intimidate the West and dissuade the West from doing that,” Pifer said.
Biden said early this week he hopes that in providing the rocket systems, the Ukrainians will be both better-defended and better able to negotiate peace with Russia. The weapons will increase Ukraine’s ability to “fight on the battlefield and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table,” Biden predicted in a New York Times op-ed published Wednesday.
The advanced rocket systems might help Ukraine defend against Russian forces, but Moscow’s response so far indicates that rather than hasten a peace deal, the Kremlin is leaning on the news as a way to further hamper talks.
“Such deliveries do not contribute to the awakening of the desire of the Ukrainian leadership to resume peace talks,” Peskov said.
The Kremlin’s reaction is the latest signal coming from Russia that the war is likely not drawing to a close in the near future. U.S. intelligence officials have said for weeks now that Russia’s war in Ukraine, which is launched in February, is entering a protracted stage and stalemate.
U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken acknowledged Wednesday that the Biden administration is not sure when peace negotiations may begin again, but reiterated the administration’s position is that Russia can choose to end the war whenever it wants.
“It is fully within Russia’s power to stop what they started and to end the aggression. That’s what we seek,” Blinken told reporters Wednesday.
This “could be over tomorrow if Russia chose to end the aggression. We don’t see any signs of that right now,” Blinken said. “As long as this goes on we want to make sure that Ukraine has in hand what it needs to defend itself.”
For now, the State Department assesses the war is set to continue for “many months,” Blinken said.
Although the Kremlin is warning that it sees the new transfer of weapons as a potential threat to Russia, the U.S. intelligence community still doesn’t see Moscow taking any realistic steps towards using nuclear weapons, Biden clarified Monday.
“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,” Biden said in his op-ed.
Lavrov, too, suggested the tensions, for now, aren’t bubbling up into any dramatic escalations with Western countries entering the war at the moment.
“Of course, sane Western politicians are well aware of these risks,” Lavrov said Wednesday.