The likely imminent approval of U.S. advanced air defense systems for Ukraine could offer a much-needed boost for its forces and a timely show of support from its allies as the country endures a long and difficult winter.
Washington is poised to satisfy Kyiv’s long-held and repeated request by sending Patriot missile systems, fulfilling its promise to further bolster Ukraine’s ability to thwart repeated Russian attacks on both its military sites and civilian infrastructure.
Approval of the plan by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is likely to come later this week, with an announcement possible as early as Thursday, three U.S. officials told NBC News.
The system will not only give Ukraine vital new strength to defend its cities against missile attacks, but also illustrates that the Kremlin’s grinding effort has done little to erode Western support for Kyiv’s cause, military analysts said. After a flurry of stunning Ukrainian victories on the ground, the news also hints at a recognition that conditions have shifted the war’s focus to the air as winter has set in.Patriot — the United States armed forces’ main surface-to-air weapon, which is also used across the world — is an acronym describing how its targeting system works for Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target.
Patriot systems typically require crews of up to 90 to undergo at least 10 weeks of training, although as few as three soldiers can fire it if necessary, the U.S. Army has said, and Ukrainian armed forces have previously defied expectations in terms of how quickly their troops have learned to use Western weaponry.
Ukraine’s bitter winter is being felt across the country, with many areas without power or heating after bombardment by Russian forces destroyed power plants, lines and substations. Temperatures were set to reach as low as 21 degree Fahrenheit on Wednesday night in the capital.
The cold weather and the onset of thick mud, a notable obstacle for the invading Russian vehicles at the start of the war in February, are expected to slow combat operations on the ground, but aerial strikes and drone attacks have so far continued.
The war has become, in the eyes of some Western officials, a battle over who has the most ammunition.
Experts said the likely Patriot offer comes after months of intense Russian attacks that have pushed Ukrainian defenses, mostly Cold War-era equipment it inherited from the breakup of the Soviet Union, to beyond their limit.
“As we move into the winter, the amount of maneuver operations on the ground in the war is going to decrease for all the reasons that we know, weather, conditions and so on,” Jonathan Eyal, an associate director at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London, told NBC News.
“So it’s very likely Russia is going to keep up pressure from the air by trying to systematically destroy Ukrainian infrastructure. So it is therefore very important for Ukraine’s Western backers to look again at Ukraine’s air defenses. The timing is important,” he said.