U.S. military officials acknowledge they have spoken to Ukrainian officials repeatedly about Kyiv’s requests for newer, more advanced weapons that could help stave off Russian gains in the Donbas but refuse to say publicly whether those systems will be delivered anytime soon.
Ukraine has been pleading for weeks with the U.S. to get American-made Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, or MLRS, which are more powerful and more maneuverable than the howitzers and other artillery systems Washington and the West have provided to date.
Those pleas have only gotten louder as Russian forces have pushed ahead in eastern Ukraine, making what senior U.S. defense officials have described as “incremental gains” in a fight that has largely featured artillery and other so-called long-range fire.
“We're mindful and aware of Ukrainian asks privately and publicly for what is known as a Multiple Launch Rocket System,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters. “But I won’t get ahead of a decision that hasn’t been made yet.”
“We’re in constant communication with them about their needs,” he added. “We're working every single day to get weapons and systems into Ukraine, and every single day there are weapons and systems getting into Ukraine that are helping them, literally, in the fight.”
There are some indications, however, that U.S. officials may be ready to send Ukraine MLRS to help push back the latest Russian offensive.
Multiple U.S. officials, speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity, said the Biden administration is leaning toward sending some MLRS to Ukraine, with an announcement possible in the next week.
Later Friday, two U.S. officials speaking to Politico confirmed that the U.S. is inclined to send MLRS to Ukraine but said a final decision has not yet been made.
The United States has two multiple launch rocket systems — the M270 and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS). Both fire similar 227 mm rockets. The M270 can fire up to 12 rockets, while the more agile M142 can fire up to six.
Depending on the type of rocket, the M270 can hit targets as far away as 70 kilometers, which is twice the range of the U.S. howitzers currently in Ukraine’s arsenal. The HIMARS system can hit targets as far away as 300 kilometers.
Ukraine’s top military official, Lieutenant General Valery Zaluzhny, on Thursday took to Telegram, calling for "weapons that will allow us to hit the enemy at a big distance."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded by warning that supplying Ukraine with weapons that could reach Russian territory would be a "a serious step towards unacceptable escalation."
The debate over how best to supply Ukraine with weapons comes as Russian forces in eastern Ukraine appeared to be making more progress despite what U.S. military officials described as stiff resistance from Ukrainian troops.
Russian-backed separatists Friday claimed to have captured the center of Lyman, a key railway hub in the Donbas.
Other Russian forces encircled most of Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost city under Ukrainian control, with some reports indicating Russian forces are also now in the city itself.
Ukrainian officials in Sievierodonetsk said 90% of the city has been destroyed by shelling. But Luhansk regional Governor Serhiy Gaidai remained defiant in a message Friday on social media.
"The Russians will not be able to capture Luhansk region in the coming days as analysts have predicted," he said. “We will have enough strength and resources to defend ourselves.”
But Gaidai also admitted “it is possible that in order not to be surrounded we will have to retreat."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in this nightly video address Friday that Ukraine will defend "as much as our current defense resources allow."
He sounded a defiant note against Russia’s offensive in the Ukraine’s east: "If the occupiers think that Lyman or Sievierodonetsk will be theirs, they are wrong. Donbas will be Ukrainian."
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his daily address Friday that Russia is carrying out “an obvious policy of genocide” against Ukrainians, but the “catastrophic developments” in Ukraine could have been avoided “if the strong of the world had not played with Russia, but really pressed to end the war.”
Zelenskyy said Russia “receives almost a billion euros a day from Europeans for energy supplies,” while “the European Union has been trying to agree on a sixth package of sanctions against Russia.”
He asserted, however, that “Ukraine will always be an independent state and will not be broken.” The only remaining questions, he said, are “what price our people will have to pay for their freedom” and what price Russia will have to pay “for this senseless war against us.”
No hint of negotiations
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday spoke by phone with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer. According to Nehammer, Putin offered to complete natural gas deliveries to Austria and to discuss a prisoner swap with Ukraine.
"The Russian president has given a commitment that there must be and should be access to the prisoners of war, including to the International Red Cross,” the Austrian chancellor said. “On the other side, of course, he also demands access to Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine.”
However, Nehammer said he was doubtful Putin was interested in any negotiations to end the war.
"I have the impression that Putin wants to create facts now that I assume he will take into the negotiations [later]," he said.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.