US says Ukraine needs urgent air defence support

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The US’s top defence official on Tuesday downplayed Ukraine’s requests for longer-range missiles but pledged to meet Kyiv’s “most urgent” air-defence needs, just days before President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to ask for more military aid from Washington.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said the Biden administration was focused on beefing up support for Ukraine’s war effort, but remained cool on providing Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS), long-range warheads that can strike longer distances.

Austin said he would not “endeavour to evaluate” Kyiv’s requests for the missile systems, but said the US was more focused on “what Ukraine’s most urgent needs are”.

The comments from the US defence secretary come as the Biden administration wrestles with its strategy to keep arming Ukraine for its war effort against Russian occupying forces, but without giving Kyiv weapons that could be used to strike Russian territory.

Ukraine has asked for ATACMS for months, but the US has been concerned about depleting its own stocks amid rising tensions with China over Taiwan. Another decision from President Joe Biden on whether to provide Ukraine with ATACMS could come as soon as this week.

Speaking at the Ramstein air base in Germany during a gathering of about 50 countries assisting Kyiv’s war effort, Austin pressed the allies to “dig deep” to provide additional air defence assets amid the continuing bombardment by Russia of military and civilian targets across Ukraine.

“We’ve done a credible job of getting some air defence capability but there’s much more work to be done,” Austin said. “I have every belief they will go back and dig a bit deeper.”

General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reiterated the message, saying Ukraine’s top priorities were to secure more air defence, artillery and armour. 

Russia still had 200,000 to 300,000 troops in Ukraine, many of them conscripts, Milley said. Ukrainian forces were not intending to pause fighting this winter, but muddy conditions could stall operations until the ground freezes, he added.

“The Ukrainians have penetrated several layers of this defence,” the US general said. “It is not 100 per cent penetrated yet, but they penetrated several of the layers and they’re going very slow, preserving their combat power and very deliberately through this defensive belt that stretches the entire length and breadth of Russian occupied Ukraine.

“For Ukraine to militarily eject those two or 300,000 Russian troops that are still there, that’s a tough fight . . . there’s a lot left to go. This fight is not yet over.”

Zelenskyy is scheduled to visit Washington on Thursday, where he will make his case for more support to US Congress just as it debates whether to extend more funding for Kyiv’s war effort. Zelenskyy will also meet Biden and visit the Pentagon.

Austin and Milley will hold a classified briefing on Biden’s $24bn request for additional Ukraine aid for the full Senate on Wednesday. Some Republican members of Congress have become more sceptical about the Ukrainian president’s pleas for support and have criticised the continued US funding of Kyiv’s war effort.

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