Ukraine moved to top of list to receive US air defense capabilities

The Biden administration is prioritizing critical air defense capabilities for Ukraine over other countries to “ensure Ukraine’s survival” as Russia continues its brutal assault on the country with no end in sight, a senior White House official and congressional sources told CNN.

A senior White House official described the action as a “rather extraordinary” policy adjustment at a critical moment for Ukraine. The deliveries to Ukraine will begin this summer, and it is not immediately clear how many countries are impacted.

Prior to the decision, Ukrainian officials had clearly explained to the Biden administration that additional air defenses were critically needed as Russia continued its aerial assaults against its cities and civilian infrastructure.

“If we didn’t do this for Ukraine, they would not have been able to maintain their critical air defense stockpile heading into the winter, period,” the official said. “This is a decision that’s being made to ensure that they’re able to defend themselves against these relentless Russian missile and drone attacks.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked President Joe Biden for the move later on Thursday.

“I am deeply grateful to @POTUS [President of the United States] and the United States for prioritising Ukraine in the delivery of air defenses that we critically need to defeat Russian attacks,” Zelensky said in a post on X.

“The partnership between Ukraine and the United States is strong and unwavering. Together, we are protecting life against terror and aggression,” Zelensky added.

Putting Ukraine at the top of the list to begin receiving “sufficient quantities” of these critical air defense capabilities – specifically the Patriot and NASAM interceptors – means that the US slid down other countries that were already in the queue to receive the weapons, the sources said.

State Department and Pentagon officials are engaged in an “intensive diplomatic effort” to inform the affected countries that they will receive the interceptors on delayed timelines, the White House official said.

Ukraine is expected to get its first exports of the air defense capabilities this summer and the policy change will stay in place for 16 months, the official said. The other countries will then get the interceptors they ordered.

Late last week, Pentagon and State Department officials briefed congressional leadership on the policy change, but refused to tell them which countries would be impacted, creating frustration. That information has yet to be shared with Congress, sources said.

The White House official would not share the list of affected countries, other than to say that air defense exports to Taiwan would not be impacted.

“So far, at least in the private discussions, many of these countries have understood and appreciated the necessity of this decision,” the official said. “If any of our partners were in an existential situation like the one that Ukraine is in right now, we would move heaven and earth to help them and it just so happens that right now that country is Ukraine.”

The change is the latest shift from the Biden administration to ensure that Ukraine can continue to defend itself in the face of Russia’s ongoing assault. Last month, Biden gave permission to Ukraine to strike inside Russian territory with American munitions, breaking from long-standing US policy – though he restricted their use.

The move is being done in parallel with Biden administration efforts to get Ukraine more air defense systems as well, a second White House official said.

It also comes as the Biden administration adapts its policy approach to the conflict to account for evolving battlefield needs, and as NATO and the G7 are shoring up assistance to Ukraine amid uncertainty over November’s US presidential election.

Former President Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has threatened to cut US support for Ukraine, and the country’s war effort was seriously hindered when Republicans in Congress stalled a major military aid package for months until it was eventually passed in April.

Monthslong effort in the making

The idea to adjust the global list was first raised internally by national security adviser Jake Sullivan in mid-April when Russia was intensifying its air campaign against Ukraine and Congress had not yet passed a supplemental defense package with aide for the country.

Around the same time, a lack of air defenses meant Ukraine was powerless to prevent a Russian airstrike that destroyed the biggest power plant in Kyiv region, President Volodymyr Zelensky said.

The Pentagon proposed options after months of internal processes to examine how the change could be made. The plan to put Ukraine at the top of the list was finalized in late May.

“Our message to Russia is that if they think they can outlast Ukraine in this war, they’re mistaken,” the official said, adding, “we are now effectively mobilizing our defense industrial capacity in order to get air defense interceptors that are rolling off the line straight to Ukraine, which will provide them with sufficient quantities to be able to defend against Russian air missile attacks for the foreseeable future.”

Biden shared the news with Zelensky last week when they met on the sidelines of the G7 in Italy, the official said.

The pair also announced that the US and Ukraine had signed a bilateral security pact that commits the US for 10 years to continued training of Ukraine’s armed forces, more cooperation in the production of weapons and military equipment, the continued provision of military assistance and greater intelligence sharing.

CNN’s Daria Tarasova and Caitlin Danaher contributed to this report.

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