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U.S.-Russia Tensions Rise Amid Biden Decision to Send Rockets to Ukraine

7 minute read

President Joe Biden’s decision Wednesday to provide Ukraine with advanced rocket systems that can strike targets from dozens of miles away gives Kyiv a new, much-needed advantage in their hard-fought war with Russia. After months imploring the U.S. to send long-range missiles, President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian military will soon have a weapon with roughly twice the range of the current artillery pieces they are using to fight the better armed Russian troops that have invaded the eastern part of their country.

Moscow has noticed. Speaking with reporters after the announcement Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the U.S. of dangerously escalating the war, raising the specter not only of increased fighting in the country, but potentially spreading it beyond Ukraine’s borders. “The U.S. is deliberately and diligently pouring oil on the fire,” Peskov said.

In fact, the decision to provide four U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) was debated for weeks before Biden felt comfortable to send the weapons, administration officials say. Even then, the president wanted multiple assurances from Ukraine, including from Zelensky himself, that HIMARS would be solely used as a defensive weapon and not fired into Russian territory, the officials say. As a safeguard, the rockets that the administration decided to provide have a maximum range of around 48 miles, the officials said, rather than more advanced HIMARS munitions, some of which can travel up to 300 miles.

Such deliberation has become a recurring theme in the three-month-old fight. From the start, Biden has been pushed to send more and more shipments of sophisticated, American-made arms. Every few weeks, he faces the same dilemma: how far can the U.S. go to provide military aid without escalating to open war between its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and Russia? Finding the right balance is the driving factor behind every aid decision inside the White House and Pentagon since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order Feb. 24 to invade Ukraine, officials say. “We are mindful of the escalation risk,” Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters at the Pentagon. “But in the first instance, we’re focused on what we think the Ukrainians need for the current fight.”

Read More: TIME’s Interview with Volodymyr Zelensky

Around 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads belong to Russia and the United States and these arsenals loom large as the Biden Administration seeks to keep pressure on Putin to stop his military campaign. The White House wants to maintain a posture that can prevent or limit escalation. “As much as I disagree with Mr. Putin, and find his actions an outrage, the United States will not try to bring about his ouster in Moscow,” Biden wrote in an New York Times’ op-ed, explaining his decision. “So long as the United States or our allies are not attacked, we will not be directly engaged in this conflict, either by sending American troops to fight in Ukraine or by attacking Russian forces. We are not encouraging or enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We do not want to prolong the war just to inflict pain on Russia.”

If Putin’s forces continue to be bogged down fighting a smaller, less capable Ukrainian army, many experts fear the danger of a wider, more catastrophic confrontation with the West will rise. Putin has repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapons in response for the U.S. backseat role in the war. It remains unclear what repercussions Ukraine faces if HIMARS rockets do strike Russia either accidentally or on purpose. Kremlin spokesman Peskov told reporters Wednesday that Moscow doesn’t believe in Ukraine’s promises not to use the new weapons outside its borders.

The White House has been forced to adapt its strategy at nearly every turn in the conflict. In March, the Biden Administration postponed a long-planned military test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile out of fears that Russia would see it as threatening. A week later, the U.S. rejected a proposal to provide the Ukrainian Air Force with 28 MiG-29 fighter jets for similar reasons. Throughout the war, Biden has restrained from engaging in tit-for-tat nuclear threats in response to Putin’s fiery rhetoric.

At the same time, Washington and its allies have found ways to bolster Ukraine in its fight. At first, after Putin’s February 24 invasion, the U.S. and its European allies levied sweeping economic sanctions. Then they increased the quantity and quality of arms they provided Kyiv. As the weapons flows steadily increased, they began providing weapons-training to the Ukrainian military outside the country.

The Biden administration has repeatedly insisted U.S. troops will not fight in Ukraine, but the president has redoubled defenses in surrounding countries by moving roughly 14,000 troops eastward in Europe, principally in Poland to provide training and reassurance to allies. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but it borders four nations that are: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. The U.S. and other NATO allies have pledged to protect their eastern and central European members under the alliance’s defining Article 5 mutual defense commitments.

The U.S. is also placing any blame for escalation at Moscow’s doorstep. “The Russians can end this conflict anytime they want,” Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters at the Pentagon. “If they are wary of escalation, all it takes is one man to say stop. And they can do it.”

Kahl said it will take around three weeks for the U.S. and NATO to train the Ukrainians on HIMARS. “It’s important for them to get trained on the systems to get familiar with the systems,” he said. “We will be in a position to rapidly surge additional munitions as appropriate if the battlefield evolves.”

HIMARS is a wheel-mounted version of the track-mounted Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS) that U.S. and NATO forces use in Europe. Each system fires six precision-guided rockets that will boost Ukraine artillery range by more than two-fold from the current 20 miles with the U.S.-provided M777 howitzers. This will be key in the Donbass where the war has become an artillery duel with the two nations exchanging fire each day.

Read More: ‘Hope Gives You the Strength to Act.’ Portraits of Russians Risking Everything to Support Ukraine

The Ukrainian military faces an escalating fight in the south and east against a much larger, more technologically advanced enemy. HIMARS will not alter that fundamental equation, Kahl said, but it will provide Ukraine with more capability to defend itself. “It’s a grinding conflict,” Kahl said. “No system is going to turn the war. This is a battle of national will.”

The HIMARS announcement Wednesday came as part of a larger $700 million military aid package. The assistance includes a wide range of weapons systems for the Ukrainian military designed to help them fight off the superior heavy forces Russia is putting into the field. The transfer includes Mi-17 helicopters, advanced radar systems, Javelin missiles, and other anti-armor weapons.

The weapons and equipment are being sent under a so-called “presidential drawdown authority,” which allows Biden to transfer the hardware from U.S. stocks without Congressional approval in order to speed up delivery in an emergency. The Pentagon has launched around-the-clock supply missions, delivering eight to ten planeloads of anti-aircraft and anti-armor missiles, remote-controlled drones, rounds of ammunition and laser-guided rockets each day. Biden has now committed $5.3 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since taking office last year.

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com