The Trump administration is about to make a major change in policy by sending weapons to Ukraine as it continues to battle Russian-backed separatists in its eastern Donbass region.
Included in the lethal aid are FGM-148 Javelin missiles - the most high-tech anti-tank weapon in the U.S. arsenal. With these weapons in hand, the embattled Ukrainian forces could gain an edge against separatists, should they ever make another push. But they also serve a more important purpose.
"In terms of what difference this will make on the ground, it's a small sale," said Mark Simakovsy, the former NATO/Europe chief of staff for the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy. "What it will do is give Ukraine the ability to have a stronger deterrent against future Russian actions, particularly anti-armor capabilities that it doesn't have."
This added capability will give Ukrainian forces a morale boost, he added.
"But most importantly this is a political decision. United States took a political decision to provide Ukraine with lethal, defensive equipment that it was hesitant to do, because of Russia's reaction, for many years," Simakovsy said.
The conflict in Ukraine, which started in 2014, has been largely ignored by those in the West for several years. Many analysts and officials have resigned it to a pseudo-stalemate since the Minsk agreements in September 2014 and 2015. Fighting in the region may not be as intense as it was, but there are still regular artillery exchanges and casualties, mostly Ukrainian according to Simakovsky, each day. While the Javelins may not be able to be useful immediately, they are meant to serve as a deterrent against future aggression. The idea is to make it more dangerous and costly for Russia to continue its involvement in an effort to get Moscow to back off.
The rest of the assistance will include various weapons and ammunition, which are "entirely defensive in nature," a State Department spokesperson told Circa.
This represents a major change from the Obama administration's policy which prevented lethal aid from being sent to Ukraine in its ongoing war.
"The United States has decided to provide Ukraine enhanced defensive capabilities as part of our effort to help Ukraine build its long-term defense capability, to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to deter further aggression," said the spokesperson in an email. "This includes a defensive anti-armor capability, which we will be able to comment further on this matter once Congress has been formally notified."
The Obama administration debated sending lethal aid to Ukraine, but ultimately decided it did not want to risk escalating tensions with Russia. The Kremlin, however, escalated tensions anyway. Simakovsky noted that Russia has shown previously that it is willing to bear costs to prop up the Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway republics in the Donbass. A few Javelins won't make a difference on the ground, but optics are also important in these kinds of shadow wars.
"They have a wider purpose, and that wider purpose is to showcase U.S. political support for Ukraine," said Simakovsky. He noted that Javelins were always on the top of the list for Ukrainian officials, and that this initial shipment could set the stage for future aid.
But Washington isn't under the illusion that weapons alone will solve Ukraine's problems.
"The resolution to this conflict must be a diplomatic one," said the spokesperson.