West sends Ukraine fighter jets, heavy weapons as fighting intensifies in Donbas


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Ukraine’s outgunned and outmanned military has held out against Russia for almost two months, and as Russia intensifies its attacks on Ukraine’s east and south, Western governments are dispatching heavier weaponry and warplanes to support resistance efforts.

President Biden approved a new $800 million aid package last week that dramatically expanded the scope of weapons Washington has supplied to Kyiv. The package included 155mm howitzers — a serious upgrade in long-range artillery to match Russian systems — 40,000 artillery rounds and 11 Soviet-designed Mi-17 helicopters.

The latter fit well with Ukraine’s existing arsenal because those use a similar operating system as the Mi-8 helicopters that Kyiv has used for decades, said Alexey Muraviev, a national security expert at Australia’s Curtin University.

“We do the best we can with each package to tailor it to the need at the time, and now the need has changed,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday. “The war has changed, because now the Russians have prioritized the Donbas area, and that’s a whole different level of fighting, a whole different type of fighting.”

Ukraine has also received fighter aircraft and related parts from other nations, Kirby said. He declined to specify what kind of aircraft has been supplied or which countries have provided them.

Some of the materiel will arrive ahead of expected clashes between Russian and Ukrainian troops in the eastern Donbas region that will be particularly bloody, said Chang Jun Yan, a military expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. Future combat is likely to be larger in scale than recent battles between the two countries, he said, but Ukrainian troops who have been facing off against Russian-backed separatists in the region for years are also well trained to fight in Donbas.

But fresh weapons deliveries and familiarity with terrain do not mean Ukrainian forces will have an easy time against Russian troops that have superior arms. A senior U.S. defense official said this week that Russia was learning from its failure to seize Kyiv, the capital, and making adjustments to its command-and-control and logistics structures.

“The resupply of Ukraine is not just important but has to happen quickly and has to happen in large scale,” said Mick Ryan, a retired Australian army major general, who has been analyzing the invasion. “It also has to assume that the Russians might interdict some shipment.”

Washington Post Pentagon and national security reporter Karoun Demirjian explains the difficulties of deciding which weapons to send Ukraine. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Why is Ukraine’s Donbas region a target for Russian forces?

Other Western nations have also moved to deliver more sophisticated weapons to Ukraine as the war evolves. Britain in April pledged a defense support package worth some $130 million that includes more antitank missiles, air defense systems and nonlethal equipment. Norway announced Wednesday that it would donate 100 Mistral air defense missiles on top of the light anti-armor weapons it promised late last month. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said Tuesday that his government is sending “heavier” military equipment soon.

Farther afield, the Australian government has started sending Bushmasters to Kyiv after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked lawmakers in Canberra for the armored vehicles last month. The 20 promised Bushmasters will protect Ukrainians from explosives, artillery shrapnel and small-arms fire, Canberra said.

Ukraine will require arms deliveries well into the future if it is to fight off Russia, and analysts say the 40,000 rounds Washington has promised would last no more than two weeks on the battlefield. “Quantity really matters a lot,” said Ryan. “Even though I think the Ukrainians qualitatively are better, they still need a certain mass to repel the Russians.”

Although some equipment — such as the Bushmasters — is advanced, much of what the West is providing is not as sophisticated as the weapons in Russia’s arsenal. (Western leaders have insisted that they send equipment that is readily usable. The United States has also committed to training Ukrainian forces that are out of the country to use new weapons.)

Most of the West’s arms “would not give the Ukrainian military the technological edge of the Russian military, but they will allow it to make up, at least temporarily, for the shortage of military supplies,” Muraviev said.

Karen DeYoung, Rachel Pannett and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.

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