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U.S. and NATO to surge lethal weaponry to Ukraine to help shore up defenses against Russia

U.S. increases pressure on Russia as tensions grow
U.S. increases pressure on Russia as tensions grow 02:06

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will make another effort Friday to convince Russia to back away from its aggressive positioning around Ukraine, but the low expectations for success are reflected in the U.S.' decision this week to surge lethal weaponry to Ukraine's military in an effort to quickly shore up its defenses. 

The Biden administration told Congress late Wednesday that it gave approval for four fellow NATO members that had purchased U.S.-produced weapons systems to instead send that equipment to Ukraine, as it tries to defend itself from a potential invasion by neighboring Russia. 

Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have been given the green light to send Javelin anti-tank weapons and Stinger air-defense systems to Ukraine's forces, and the U.S. has also approved the transfer of light anti-tank weapons from the United Kingdom. Some of these systems could also ease air transport of troops. Under U.S. law, permitting allies to send U.S.-origin equipment requires State Department permission due to export controls.

In what a State Department official called the "fastest transfer ever" for the U.S. government, the Biden administration will also hand over to the Ukrainian government five Mi-17 transport helicopters. These five helicopters were already positioned in Ukraine for servicing.

The Russian-made helicopters had been purchased by the U.S. for Afghan forces but since the Afghan military no longer exists, the U.S. can just essentially hand over the keys. Congress was informed that this transfer will be carried out under the Excess Defense Articles program. 

An Mi-17 helicopter of the Afghan Air Force, equipped with
FILE: FARAH, AFGHANISTAN - 2018/03/08: An Mi-17 helicopter of the Afghan Air Force, equipped with gun on the side door, sitting on the tarmac of the main road somewhere in Bolo Bluk district, Farah province. Photo by Franz J. Marty/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

During his visit to Berlin today in an effort to use diplomacy to de-escalate the growing tensions at Ukraine's borders, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked about the Biden administration's decision to help surge weaponry there and stipulated that the military hardware had defensive purposes to protect against aggression that Russia had initiated. 

"And so the idea that the provision by the United States, by European countries, by NATO of defensive military equipment to Ukraine is somehow provocative or cause for Russia's actions has the world upside down," Blinken said.  "All that we are trying to do is to make sure to the best of our ability that, as I said, Ukraine has the means to defend itself, and that might perhaps deter further aggression by Russia," 

On Friday, Blinken will meet with Russia's top diplomat Sergey Lavrov in Geneva to see if there is any diplomatic off-ramp that can be found to avoid conflict. The Biden administration has made it clear that Russia is considering a variety of ways to attack Ukraine that span from sending tanks across the land borders once the ground freezes to cyber attacks to scaler scale acts of sabotage or provocations by non-uniformed operatives.

A Ukrainian official and a senior Democratic aide each told CBS News that there is concern about the ability of Ukraine's air defense to withstand a Russian air assault. The Ukrainians want an "Iron Dome"-type system similar to what the U.S. provides to Israel, but such a defense could take some time to produce and deploy. 

In recent days, U.S. officials have warned that the estimated 100,000 Russian troops near the borders of Ukraine could launch an attack at any point. Ukraine estimates it now has roughly 127,000 Russian troops encircling it. 

The arrival of Russian troops in Belarus this week for war games now means that Vladimir Putin is positioned to potentially launch an attack from the north in addition to the eastern flank where his troops have been positioned since November. Russian forces also are to the south in Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Blinken said  Wednesday that the U.S. knows there are plans in place to increase those forces even more on very short notice.

"And that gives President Putin the capacity also on very short notice to take further aggressive action against Ukraine," Blinken said following his visit in Kyiv with Ukraine's President Zelensky. 

Over the course of 2021, the U.S. supplied Ukraine with $450 million in defensive aid, according to a U.S. defense official. The State Department recently approved $200 million more in military aid, which is expected to start shipping to Ukraine this month. 

Land Forces brigade of Armed Forces of Ukraine holds training at Rivne test site
FILE: RIVNE REGION, UKRAINE - MAY 26, 2021 - Anti-tank missile system FGM-148 Javelin is seen during tactical battalion exercises of a separate mechanized brigade of the North operational command of the Land Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.  Volodymyr Tarasov/ Ukrinform/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The aid from the U.S. has included both lethal and non-lethal weapons, from Javelin anti-tank missiles, to patrol boats, to small arms and ammunition. 

The Javelin anti-tank missiles, first given to Ukraine in 2018, use thermal imaging and can hit tanks from above, where the armor is the thinnest. The decision by the Trump administration to authorize the sale of Javelins marked the first time the U.S. government directly sold lethal weaponry to Ukraine, though private commercial sales had been approved on a case-by-case basis since 2015, according to the Atlantic Council.

Blinken said Wednesday that the U.S. would provide additional material not yet in the pipeline if Russia carries through with any aggressive intent or further invades Ukraine. 

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