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The U.S. will provide an additional $800 million in security aid to Ukraine

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

Ukraine is about to get more weapons and military equipment from the U.S. President Biden delivered the news to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this afternoon. The $800 million in new security aid comes on top of more than $2.6 billion the Biden administration has already provided. This latest offering includes artillery systems, artillery rounds, armored personnel carriers and helicopters. It could dramatically increase Ukraine's ability to withstand the Russian onslaught in the next phase of the war.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby joins me now to talk more about the package and what it could mean for Ukraine. Mr. Kirby, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOHN KIRBY: Thank you, Daniel. It's good to be with you today.

ESTRIN: Before we get to the new military aid, let's first talk about where the war is headed. Russian forces are gathering in eastern Ukraine, in the Donbas region. We are expecting a new assault. When might that happen? And what might it look like?

KIRBY: Difficult to know with great specificity exactly when their new offensive and push will occur. To some degree, elements of that have already started. They are flowing in fresh troops. They're flowing in artillery, even helicopter support, as well as other what we would call enablers, command and control capabilities, into the Donbas region. So they are clearly doing what we call shaping. They're setting the conditions for eventual more aggressive military operations. In the meantime, the forces that retreated out of Kyiv and out of Cherhiniv in the north are moving now to the east, across Belarus and into Russia, into Belgorod, for instance, and Valuyki and beginning to refit, resupply and get themselves ready for insertion. So, again, it's difficult to know exactly when more aggressive operations are going to be conducted, but we don't believe there's a whole lot of time between now and that moment. I would say perhaps weeks at the outset but maybe not even that long.

ESTRIN: Weeks. OK. So let's get to the new weapons package. The president's statement says that the U.S. is providing, quote, "new capabilities tailored to the wider assault we expect Russia to launch in eastern Ukraine." What exactly is the U.S. providing that is tailored to fighting in the east?

KIRBY: The most demonstrative example of that is the howitzers, the 18 howitzers and the 40,000 rounds of artillery that go along with those howitzers. When you look at the Donbas region and you look at the kind of capabilities that the Russians are flowing in, they're also flowing in artillery and tanks, what we call long-range fires. Now, these are rounds, these are rockets, these are shells that are designed to cause damage from a distance but not so far away as you need for a missile strike. So the Donbas region is relatively flat, not the same sort of geography that you had up in the north of Ukraine, not wooded, not forested, not hilly. And so it lends itself to more conventional warfare, like tanks and artillery. And so that's what we - that's why we put that in that package. It's also why, if you look in that package, you'll see counter-artillery radar because that can be a real lifesaver for the Ukrainians. Since we expect the Russians to use a lot of artillery in that region, this counter-artillery radar will help them defend against those threats.

ESTRIN: Well, can we speak specifically about the Russian missile threat projectiles? Because so far, half of the missiles fired into Ukraine have been mostly fired from the outside, from Russia, Belarus, the sea. Speak specifically about weaponry in this new package that can confront that missile threat.

KIRBY: Well, in addition to the counter-artillery radar, you'll see that there is an air defense radar - portable, towed from a vehicle - air defense radar system, several of them, as a matter of fact. And that will also help the Ukrainians defend against airstrikes in the Donbas. Now, I will add that the Ukrainians already have long-range air defense at their capability. They have short-range air defense as well. So this will add to their ability to deal with the increased air threat that will likely come from the Russians from airstrikes and missile strikes. And you're right, they're flying most of their missions, the manned missions. They are not venturing inside Ukrainian airspace because they know the Ukrainians have a sophisticated and nimble air defense capability.

ESTRIN: President Zelenskyy has been asking for more sophisticated weaponry since the very beginning of this war. Why didn't you give it to them earlier?

KIRBY: We have been in constant conversation with the Ukrainians about their needs. And the package that you're seeing today is actually an outgrowth of those conversations in just the last few days talking to the Ukrainians about this fight in the Donbas and what they could really use. We have tailored each package to what we think they're going to need the most. And that conversation will continue going forward.

ESTRIN: Now, this is a huge package. Are you concerned Russia could see all this weaponry as an escalation?

KIRBY: There's not a day that we don't think about escalation management, as we should. It's the responsible thing to do here at the Defense Department. But we also have a concomitant requirement and responsibility to help Ukraine defend itself against the kinds of threats that they're facing. And so every decision we make, we're balancing all that, but we're leaning as far forward as we can on helping Ukraine defend itself. That's the prerogative. That's the priority. And we can't predict perfectly how Mr. Putin is going to interpret these systems. But these are all systems designed to defend Ukraine, to help Ukraine defend itself.

ESTRIN: How quickly are you getting these weapons to the Ukrainians?

KIRBY: Very quickly. Now, look, I can't tell you that today. You know, the first shipment is going to be in the air, but it won't take long. In the past, in the last couple of packages that the president has signed, we've been able to go from the day he authorizes it to actually in the hands of Ukrainian fighters in as little - at least the initial shipments - in as little as six days - six days.

ESTRIN: And a quick answer...

KIRBY: So we're going to be moving very, very quickly here.

ESTRIN: ...How quickly can you get them trained up, the Ukrainians?

KIRBY: So not all these systems are going to require training, Daniel, maybe the artillery, perhaps the radar systems. And they are not that complicated. The Ukrainians know how to use artillery of their own. So we think we can begin doing some training of the trainers in a very short period of time. And that will obviously probably take place outside Ukraine, of course.

ESTRIN: John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KIRBY: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.