Feb 24, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: U.S. eyes training Ukrainian troops remotely

Ukrainians are seen huddling in a Kyiv subway station during Russia's assault on Thursday.

Ukrainians seek shelter in a Kyiv subway station on Thursday. Photo: Viacheslav Ratynsky/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told House lawmakers Thursday the Biden administration is considering ways to train Ukrainian forces remotely if the Russians seize control of Ukraine, officials on the call told Axios.

Why it matters: With the capital of Kyiv in danger of falling after Russia's invasion, the Pentagon is contemplating the next phase of the conflict.

  • Austin told members of the House that military officials are looking at ways to provide more defense equipment — including ammunition — to Ukrainian forces, but it's more difficult now with Russian troops swarming the country.
  • Russian mechanized forces, which came in from Belarus, were 20 miles outside of Kyiv, he said.
  • Austin also emphasized the Biden administration would support President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government as long as it remained “viable,” raising questions about continued U.S. assistance if the president flees the country, is captured or is killed in combat.
  • A Defense Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the contents of the private call.

The big picture: Western officials fear Kyiv could soon fall into Russian hands despite Ukraine's resilient fight.

  • That would pave the way for Zelensky's government to be toppled and replaced with a pro-Kremlin puppet regime in a matter of days.

Driving the news: With the harsh sanctions imposed Thursday unlikely to stop Russia's advances, the next phase of the Western strategy will center on turning Ukraine into a "porcupine" of resistance.

  • “I had to fight an insurgency in Iraq, so I know how effective an insurgency can be,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.). “With the right spirit, right intel and right weaponry, the Ukrainians can make the Russians rethink if they want to occupy Ukraine.”
  • “We have absolutely discussed [supporting an insurgency and sending arms to Ukrainians], but it’s not something that I can discuss,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.).
  • “I think that Putin and the Russian people are going to be in a long, hard war. And Putin may be winning today, but in the long run, he will run lose.”
  • Both are Marine veterans.

Between the lines: Some lawmakers are calling on President Biden to share targeting intelligence with the Ukrainian military, but others are skeptical.

  • Gallego said: “We are certainly going to aid Ukraine by giving them lethal aid and giving them the intelligence that they need to make that aid effective.”
  • “I don’t consider that an escalation; I consider it a part of helping a country.”

Congress failed in its efforts to pass new aid and sanctions to fend off the invasion. It's now mobilizing to assemble a package of emergency support.

  • Votes could come as soon as next week.

The big picture: The "porcupine strategy" is most commonly used to refer to the policy of bolstering Taiwan's asymmetric defenses to make an invasion by China as painful as possible.

Now, that's what the West wants to promote to punish Russia for its unprovoked assault half a world away: make Ukraine painful to digest.

  • Ukrainian forces so far have been buoyed by foreign military aid and drastic modernization since 2014.
  • The Biden administration has committed more than $650 million in security assistance since 2021, including a December tranche of $200 million in equipment that hasn't been fully delivered.
  • More help may soon be on the way, though the logistical hurdles could be substantial with Russia in control of Ukraine's airspace.

What we're watching: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she wants to provide Ukraine with $600 million in "lethal defense weapons."

  • House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told CNN the odds of passing a bill "in a rapid enough fashion to repel the invasion are remote."
  • But he added that "it's quite possible that what we're looking at here is a more long-term insurgency," and "we need to be prepared to support the Ukrainian people in that effort."
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he wants votes on emergency assistance to start by next week.

What they're saying: Biden warned Russia during his address on Thursday.

  • "History has shown time and again how swift gains in territory eventually give way to grinding occupations, acts of mass civil disobedience and strategic dead-ends," he said.
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