The United States is finalizing plans to send its sophisticated Patriot air defense system to Ukraine following an urgent request from Kyiv, which wants more robust weapons to shoot down Russian missiles and drones that have devastated the country’s energy infrastructure and left millions without heating in the bitter cold of winter.
Washington could announce a decision on the Patriot as soon as Thursday, the Reuters and Associated Press news agencies reported, citing US government officials.
Ukraine’s air defense systems were tested again early on Wednesday morning, Mayor Vitali Klitschko saying emergency services had been dispatched to the Shevchenkivskyi district after explosions were heard.
“Details later,” he added on his Telegram channel.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pressed Western leaders as recently as Monday to provide more advanced weapons to his country. The Patriot would be the most advanced surface-to-air missile system the West has provided to Ukraine.
Gaining Patriot air defense capability would be “very, very significant” for Kyiv, said Alexander Vindman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and onetime leader of Ukraine policy at the White House.
“These are going to be quite capable of dealing with a lot of different challenges the Ukrainians have, especially if the Russians bring in short-range ballistic missiles.”
The Pentagon declined to comment and there was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials.
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has warned NATO against equipping Kyiv with Patriot missile defenses, and it is likely that the Kremlin will view the move as an escalation.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 and is now embroiled in a grinding war in the industrialized Donbas region in Ukraine’s east.
Getting through winter
The US has given Ukraine $19.3bn in military assistance since the invasion, which is Europe’s biggest conflict since World War Two.
As a result of Russia’s relentless barrage, the US and its allies have been delivering more air defenses to Kyiv, everything from Soviet-era systems to more modern, Western ones.
Millions of civilians are living with cuts to electricity, heating and water as temperatures plummet.
In Paris, about 70 countries and institutions pledged just over 1 billion euros ($1.06 billion) to help maintain Ukraine’s water, food, energy, health and transport in the face of Russia’s attacks, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said.
In his nightly video address, Zelenskyy hailed the pledges as good news.
“Every day, we are gaining new strength for Ukraine to get us through this winter,” he said.
In an address to New Zealand’s parliament on Wednesday, he also called for more assistance to deal with the mines and unexploded ordnance created by the conflict.
“As of now, 174,000 square kilometers (67,000 square miles) of Ukrainian territory are contaminated with mines and unexploded ordnance,” Zelenskyy told legislators.
That is an area roughly the size of Cambodia, Syria or Uruguay.
Zelenskyy urged New Zealand, whose military has extensive experience in mine clearing, to help lead the clean-up effort.
“There is no real peace for any child who can die from a hidden Russian antipersonnel mine,” he said.
White House and Pentagon leaders have argued consistently that providing Ukraine with additional air defenses is a priority, and Patriot missiles have been under consideration for some time. Officials said that as the winter closed in and the Russian bombardment of civilian infrastructure escalated, that consideration took on increased priority.
One of the US officials told the Reuters news agency that Ukrainian forces would probably be trained in Germany before the Patriot equipment was delivered. Vindman said the training could take several months.
The administration’s potential approval of a Patriot battery was first reported by CNN.
According to officials, the US plan would be to send one Patriot battery. A truck-mounted Patriot battery includes up to eight launchers, each of which can hold four missiles.
The entire system, which includes a phased array radar, a control station, computers and generators, typically requires about 90 soldiers to operate and maintain. However, only three soldiers are needed to actually fire it, according to the US Army.