Under export control regulations, the three countries were required to obtain approval from the State Department before transferring their weapons to Ukraine. The administration official declined to list the specific weapons that were approved for transfer.
The approvals come as U.S. officials ratchet up warnings of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
During a Wednesday press conference, President Joe Biden said “my guess is [Russian President Vladimir Putin] will move in” against Ukraine, though “I think he’ll regret having done it.”
On Tuesday, a State Department official told reporters that the arrival of Russian troops in Belarus for hastily announced military exercises over the weekend poses a fresh risk to Ukraine. “Russia could intend to station troops in Belarus under the guise of joint military exercises in order to potentially attack Ukraine from the north,” the official said.
The countries most at risk of renewed Russian adventurism — the Baltic members of NATO, all of which are former Soviet satellite states — are not only seeking to rush weapons to Ukraine but have also requested more NATO forces to bolster those already stationed in their countries.
The dozens of Russian infantry brigades arrayed along the Ukrainian border, equipped with tanks, rocket launchers and mobile artillery, would be virtually impossible to stop if deployed in force. But the Javelin anti-armor missiles Ukraine already possesses, and weapons such as Stinger ground-to-air missiles that remain on its wish list, could impose a cost on Russian forces that could lead to trouble at home for Putin.
Earlier on Wednesday, POLITICO reported that the weapons transfer requests were still winding their way through Washington’s bureaucracy, after multiple officials and people familiar with the process said the transfers were being considered. A State Department spokesperson declined to comment on the status of the transfer, and a spokesperson for the National Security Council did not respond to requests for comment on the status of the transfers. But after the story was published, the administration official said the transfers have been approved.
Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told POLITICO on Tuesday that he hoped the State Department quickly green-lights the licenses.
“We cannot let bureaucracy and the status quo keep us from doing what we must to get the Ukrainians what they need to defend themselves,” he said in a statement. “Given the urgency of the situation, the Biden administration should find the political will and figure out how to work faster to move these export licenses.”
Signing off on the transfer of U.S. equipment to a third party is a complex business that requires reviews and approvals from multiple agencies within the U.S. government. But there are situations in which third party transfer is still faster than Washington shipping the weapons directly to the receiving country.
The Foreign Assistance Act mandates that a third party transfer has to meet certain standards, including whether the U.S. would have made the same transfer if it chose to, said Elias Yousif, an analyst of arms transfer policy at the Stimson Center. “The country making the transfer also has to illustrate why they’re transferring [the weapons] and all the relative information that they have, including information on the recipients and recipient unit,” he said, noting that the process takes time.
Last year, the U.S. transferred $650 million worth of weapons and military equipment to Ukraine, the most during any single year since security assistance began in 2014.
Peeter Kuimet, head of Estonia’s International Cooperation Department, said last month that his country was considering sending Ukraine its Javelin anti-armor missiles and 122-mm howitzers and was waiting on U.S. approval for the Javelins, and for Finland and Germany to sign off on the howitzers.
In December, Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anušauskas pledged to send lethal weapons to Ukraine, though he declined to specify what they might be. “It is a matter of a multilateral agreement because several countries are involved, not only the giver and receiver but also the manufacturer and supplier,” he said.
Both countries already possess Javelins, and would likely need to begin replacing their stocks with newer versions of the missile as the current ones begin to age.
A request for part of that replenishment was approved by the State Department in December, when it OK’d the sale of 230 Javelins to Lithuania, following a 2015 sale for 220 of the missiles. Estonia also purchased 350 Javelin missiles in 2014.
A Lithuanian official told POLITICO that the country is also ready to “increase the number of instructors for our military training mission, providing additional material assistance: both lethal, non-lethal and humanitarian one.”
The fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act calls for $300 million in U.S. military assistance for Ukraine this year, with at least $75 million specifically designated for lethal assistance.
Given the fast-moving situation on the ground, some countries have started shipping their own weapons to Ukraine.
On Monday, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced that the U.K. will “supply Ukraine with light, anti-armour, defensive weapon systems” and send “a small number of UK personnel” to Ukraine to provide training on the weapons.
The British government has been active in the region, sending engineers to Poland last year to buttress local forces in hardening the country’s border with Belarus after the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko sent thousands of migrants from the Middle East toward Poland’s border.
In November, the U.K. also inked a deal with the government in Kyiv to produce eight new warships, including mine-hunting vessels for the Ukrainian navy.
A spokesperson for the British government said “the U.K. and our allies are providing a range of support to Ukraine, including to enhance Ukraine’s defense capability, but this support is fundamentally defensive in nature. Neither NATO nor Ukraine pose any aggressive threat to Russia.”
Another State Department official confirmed Wednesday that the U.S. has approved the $200 million weapons package it had been debating internally whether to ship to Ukraine, which includes more Javelin missiles, ammunition, radar systems and medical equipment, The Associated Press reported.
The issue of increased American support was a major topic among a bipartisan group of U.S. senators who visited Kyiv over the weekend, where they pledged more defensive and lethal weapons. The lawmakers briefed Biden on their visit Wednesday morning.
The Russian deployment into Belarus over the weekend adds a worrying new wrinkle to the crisis.
The shift of 100,000 troops into position along Ukraine’s borders, combined with moving forces into Belarus on short notice, is “beyond of course what we would expect with regards to a normal exercise,” the first State Department official said.
According to agreements between Russia and NATO, exercises involving more than 9,000 troops require 42 days’ notice, and if the drill includes more than 13,000 troops, international observers are required. Russia has given no notifications thus far.
“That’s what normal looks like,” the State Department official said. “What this is, is something entirely different.”