Pentagon sends biggest arms package yet to Ukraine amid fears of Russian attack on nuclear reactor
The Biden administration on Monday pledged $1 billion worth of additional military equipment to Ukraine, the largest single drawdown of firepower from U.S. stocks since the start of Russia’s invasion almost six months ago. The security assistance package includes more warheads for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and almost 100,000 rounds of artillery and mortar ammunition that Ukrainians say have helped turn the tide of battle in fierce fighting in the south and east.
The latest drawdown is the eighteenth since Russia invaded its neighbor Feb. 24, Pentagon officials said Monday.
“This package provides a significant amount of additional ammunition, weapons, and equipment — the types of which the Ukrainian people are using so effectively to defend their country,” Colin H. Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters. “These are all critical capabilities to help the Ukrainians repel the Russian offensive in the east and also to address evolving developments in the south and elsewhere.”
The latest round brings the total U.S. security assistance to Ukraine to $9.8 billion since the start of the Biden administration, officials said, although officials in Kyiv say that even more firepower is needed to hold off the bigger and better-armed Russian forces.
“We will continue to support the Ukrainian people as they defend their country from Russian aggression, for as long as it takes,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said. “As this war stretches on, the courage and strength of Ukraine’s military and its people become even more evident and even more extraordinary.”
U.S. officials said they are working with Ukrainian defense officials to get them what they need, based on the circumstances on the ground at the time. At least 50 other countries also are providing military support to Ukraine.
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“We are working around the clock to fulfill Ukraine’s priority security assistance requests, delivering weapons from United States stock when they are available and facilitating the delivery of weapons by allies and partners when their systems better suit Ukraine’s needs,” Mr. Kahl said.
Mr. Kahl claimed that Russia’s battlefield losses so far have been staggering. In only about six months, Moscow has taken 70,000 to 80,000 casualties, both killed and wounded.
“It’s pretty remarkable considering that the Russians have achieved none of [President] Vladimir Putin’s objectives at the beginning of the war,” he said. “They have made some incremental gains in the east. But that has come at an extraordinary cost to the Russian military because of how well the Ukrainian military has performed and all the assistance that the Ukrainian military has gotten.”
On Monday, British defense officials said several top-level Russian military commanders have been sacked because of the poor performance of their armed forces during the invasion.
“These dismissals are compounded by at least 10 Russian generals killed on the battlefield in Ukraine,” British military intelligence service said in a Twitter post. “The cumulative effect on consistency of command is likely contributing to Russian tactical and operational difficulties.”
A nuclear plant in the battle zone
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The latest U.S. security drawdown package comes as Kyiv and Moscow are accusing each other of the weekend shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station, the largest in Europe. The fighting around the site has sent fears soaring among international nuclear safety experts that the site’s nuclear operations could be compromised.
“There is no such nation in the world that can feel safe when a terrorist state fires at a nuclear plant,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday during his regular address to the country. “God forbid, if something irreparable happens, no one will stop the wind that will spread the radioactive contamination.”
He said a “principled response” from the international community is needed to deal with the Russian attacks.
While the nuclear power plant has been under Russian control since the early days of the war, Ukrainian technicians are still running it. Both nations are denying any responsibility for the strike. Russian diplomats in Washington pointed the finger at “Ukrainian nationalists.”
“Two high-voltage power lines and a water pipeline were damaged as a result of the shelling,” the Russian Embassy said in a statement. “Only thanks to the effective and timely actions of the Russian military in covering the nuclear power facility, its critical infrastructure was not affected.”
Russian diplomats contend the Kremlin has been the victim of a “disinformation campaign” unfolding in the U.S. to hold Russia responsible for the damage to the nuclear power plant.
“In order to discredit Russia, the Ukrainian authorities do not shun anything, creating a real threat to the nuclear security not only of Ukraine but of Europe as well,” the embassy said.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, has asked both sides to allow their technicians to inspect the plant and make sure it doesn’t pose a danger.
“Any attack to nuclear power plants is suicidal,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters in Tokyo on Monday. “We support the IAEA in their efforts to create the conditions of stabilization of that plant.”
Energoatom, the operator of Ukraine’s state-owned nuclear power station, said the Russian shelling damaged three radiation monitors around the storage facility for spent nuclear fuels. At least one worker there was injured.
Russian forces are threatening to deliberately destroy the Zaporizhzhia power plant, telling Ukrainian officials the facility is already wired with explosives, according to Energoatom. The agency cited a statement from Russian Gen. Valery Vasiliev, who commands Russia’s Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Defense forces.
“The enemy knows that the station will be either Russia’s or no one’s. We are ready for the consequences of this step,” Gen. Vasiliev said, according to Energoatom. “There will either be Russian land or scorched desert.”
Energoatom said Ukrainian intelligence officials have verified the statement.
As the finger-pointing over the damaged nuclear power plant continues, the Moscow-installed governor of the Zaporozhye region signed an order for a referendum on whether they would become part of Russia. It would be the first concrete move by Moscow to formally designate portions of Ukrainian territory captured in the war as part of Russia.
“We pin our future on being together with Russia. Time is ripe to restore historical justice,” the resolution stated, according to TASS, the official Russian news agency. “We are confident that as a member of Russia, the Zaporozhye Region will be protected from any encroachments.”
Mr. Zelenskyy said reports of Russian officials preparing for “pseudo-referendums” in Ukraine are nothing new. In his address, he warned collaborators that they would be held accountable if they helped the occupying forces.
“We will not give up anything of ours, and if the occupiers follow the path of these pseudo-referendums, they will close for themselves any possibility of negotiations with Ukraine,” Mr. Zelenskyy said.