Zelensky’s Weapons Wish List Goes Mostly Unfulfilled on Trip to Washington

The Biden administration continues to balk at sending U.S. battle tanks, fighter jets and long-range missiles to Ukraine.

WASHINGTON — President Volodymyr Zelensky’s triumphant visit to Washington ended with promises of billions more in U.S. support for Ukraine, but not what he wanted most: American battle tanks, fighter jets and long-range precision missiles.

The United States has repeatedly said there are weapons it will not send to Ukraine to battle Russia’s invading forces.

Ukrainian officials have broadcast their top battlefield requests for months, most recently in a tweet labeled “My Christmas Wishlist” from Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky.

Mr. Biden approved one item on that list, a battery of Patriot air defenses, on Wednesday. But the administration has declined to offer or help provide the four others, including battle tanks and long-range missiles.

But some American officials argue that it is the nature of the war that has changed, not the level of risk the White House will tolerate.

Ukraine had a greater need for the HIMARS system once the war became a battle of artillery and Russian command posts pulled back off the front lines. The Biden administration decided to send the Patriot battery when Russia began launching sustained attacks on Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure as winter set in.

Both the HIMARS and Patriot systems require trained teams to operate them, so there is a cost to Ukraine to pull experienced soldiers off the front lines to learn how to use them.

And the United States has only wanted to do that once they were sure the more sophisticated systems could make a real difference.

The administration’s current no-go weapons fall into three basic categories with some overlap, administration officials say.

The first group includes weapons like the long-range missiles called ATACMS, with a range of some 190 miles. The administration fears that if Ukraine gets in a bad enough bind, it could use the missiles to strike targets in Russia, prompting President Vladimir V. Putin to widen the war.

When asked about the missiles at a joint news conference with Mr. Zelensky on Wednesday, Mr. Biden cautioned that sending the arms could rupture NATO unity in support of Ukraine. “They’re not looking to go to war with Russia,” he said of the alliance.

A second category covers weapons like armed MQ-1C Gray Eagle and MQ-9 Reaper drones, which proponents said would enable Ukraine to attack a broader array of targets or spot them for other Ukrainian strikes. But Pentagon officials have expressed concerns that if those drones are shot down or crash, Russia could recover them and exploit their advanced technology.

A third category covers weapons like the Abrams battle tank and F-16 fighter jets, some of the most advanced weapons in America’s arsenal. Pentagon officials say Ukraine already has enough tanks and fighter jets from other countries. More important, the officials say, the systems take months to learn how to use and require complex maintenance, usually done by civilian contractors, who might be unable to work safely in Ukraine.

Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Ukraine needs additional munitions that the United States cannot easily provide.

“We simply don’t have the stocks to supply, nor do we make the munitions that much of their equipment fires,” Mr. Murphy said.

Mr. Murphy also acknowledged that the prospect that with a divided Congress — Republicans take control of the House next month, while Democrats will retain their majority in the Senate — aiding Ukraine may soon prove even more difficult.

“Zelensky is always asking for the sky and that’s perfectly appropriate, and it’s our job to make sure his job is nimble enough to meet the moment,” Mr. Murphy said. “We also do have an obligation to the taxpayers to not waste money.”

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