The Defense Department is working to shore up efforts to track weapons provided to Ukraine, according to three senior U.S. officials, including discussing whether to send a small number of additional U.S. troops to Ukraine.
The discussion comes as the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches and the Biden administration contends with the ground war and a new political battlefield at home. The incoming Republican House majority has signaled it will be more skeptical of a “blank check” for Ukraine and will want more accountability about how U.S. weapons are distributed and used. Some GOP lawmakers could try to block economic and military aid — or limit U.S. troop presence.
The Pentagon has a couple of dozen U.S. troops in Ukraine, including a very small number already assigned to making sure weapons reach their intended recipients. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other military leaders want to enhance the accountability mission and make sure there are experts in country to help Ukraine use critical weapons systems, including air defense and counter-drone systems.
Efforts to track weapons in Ukraine have shown very little evidence of systems’ being diverted, the officials said, but so far the troops assigned to the mission in Ukraine have been able to visit only two locations outside Kyiv to check on the use of U.S. supplies. While the U.S. troops do not travel to the front lines, they would travel outside Kyiv to scan bar codes on weapons and equipment to track supplies. Pentagon and military leaders want to enable more visits.
The officials said they would like to pick up the pace of the weapons check before January, when there will be more pressure for accountability from House Republicans.
In a statement, the Pentagon press secretary, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, said: “The U.S. remains steadfast in its support of Ukraine and its ability to defend against Russia’s unprovoked aggression, and the U.S. presence at Embassy Kyiv reflects that enduring commitment. As soon as security conditions permitted in late May, DoD reopened its Defense Attaché Office (DAO) and Office of Defense Cooperation (ODC) at the Embassy in Kyiv to perform mission critical functions. DoD coordinates its personnel levels in connection with the State Department and interagency, as part of the overall Embassy footprint. We will continue to review our presence in-country, as security conditions evolve. Though the ODC is embedded within the U.S. Embassy, it is staffed exclusively by DoD personnel. For operational security and force protection reasons, we won’t discuss specific numbers of personnel.”
The senior U.S. officials stressed that any new troop presence would be limited and modest, most likely in the single digits. In addition to security concerns, they said, sustaining people in Kyiv remains challenging, with finite space and an unreliable supply of essentials like running water and electricity.
The State Department also caps how many U.S. government officials — civilian and military — can live and work in other countries, and that limit is low in Ukraine, officials say. Some could live and work in neighboring countries and travel in for missions if the cap is not raised, the officials said, but an increase could also spark criticism from Republicans and others that the Biden administration is pushing the limits of a pledge not to send U.S. troops to Ukraine.
“This is classic mission creep,” a former U.S. official said.
“That’s ridiculous,” a U.S. defense official said, explaining that it is an “extremely limited” additional presence with a “very specific” mission. “This is about supporting the Ukrainians, not fighting the Russians.”