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The Ukraine ‘rat line’: How the U.S. and British are funneling weapons to kill Russians

The floodgates of military aid for Ukraine appeared to burst open this week as European countries lined up to announce the delivery of tens of thousands of rockets aimed at striking Russian tanks and helicopters, along with other critical supplies.

Western officials insist that the shipments aren’t too late to influence the fight against the 150,000-plus Russian troops pushing toward Kyiv and other major cities, though the routes to get the weapons into the country are few, and increasingly perilous.

Ukrainian leaders are pushing the West for any help they can offer. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted a new plea for fighter planes, a day after a proposal for planes fell through. “Dear partners who still have not provided Ukraine with military aircraft: how can you sleep when Ukrainian children are under bombs in Mariupol, Kherson, Kharkiv, other cities? You can take this decision now. Do it!”

The impetus for the flurry of announcements over the past week was a hastily-convened Feb. 25 donors summit run by British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, where he garnered pledges by 25 nations to send weapons and other military aid, placing the British government at the forefront of the historic resupply effort.

Since that conference, the U.K. has “essentially been providing a kind of a point of contact for [allies] to say ‘this is what we would like to get in there,’” Edward Ferguson, the British Embassy in Washington’s top defense adviser, told a small group of reporters in Washington.

U.S. European Command is working with the U.K. to provide “logistical nodes in different places that will be able to call forward flights and deliveries at the moment we’re able to get them across the border and into the hands” of the Ukrainians, he said. The collaboration is aimed at making sure “we’ve got single channels that are easy for Ukrainians to engage with, as well as for our allies.”

While European Command declined to describe its efforts to get weapons and military aid to the Ukrainian border, a Defense Department official in Washington told POLITICO that as allies make announcements “regarding their own contributions, we are committed to working closely with them to ensure that our assistance is coordinated and meets Ukraine’s highest priority needs.”

The decision to ship the supplies by road into Ukraine has emerged as a remarkable wartime improvisation, made necessary by the inability to fly aid into the country; Russian jets and radar and air defense systems make flights almost impossible. The weapons deliveries — missiles, small arms, body armor and ammunition — are being made to NATO countries along the border with Ukraine, where they are loaded onto Ukrainian trucks and driven to various locations along the front lines. The mission is reminiscent of the “rat lines” popularized by author Seymour Hersh, referring to a purported secret CIA effort to funnel weapons from neighboring countries to opposition forces in Syria a decade ago.

For security reasons, officials from several countries involved in the transfers to Ukraine declined to acknowledge where the weapons were crossing the border. But the Polish government has already announced it had shipped ammunition into Ukraine by road, and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said this week she was “able to get an agreement from Poland to make sure that that delivery could be done through their borders.”

Poland is unlikely to be the only hub for moving goods into Ukraine, especially if Russian troops push farther west, or the Russian air force begins targeting trucks coming across Ukraine’s borders as they have threatened to do if the resupply doesn’t cease.

Russia is well aware of the push of weapons into Ukraine, and the foreign ministry warned any person or country sending arms in the country “will be responsible for any consequences of such actions.”

The results from Wallace’s summit have been immediate, however.

Finland has pledged 2,500 assault rifles, ammunition and 1,500 anti-tank weapons, while Sweden announced 5,000 helmets, body armor and 5,000 anti-tank weapons.

Germany, which overturned its post-war policy of refusing to arm nations involved in a conflict, said it would ship 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles to Ukraine, while also adding a $100 billion infusion to its defense budget.

The Netherlands, Portugal, Canada, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have also announced shipments of anti-armor and anti-aircraft rockets, body armor, helmets, fuel and hundreds of thousands of packages of field rations.

While the United States has been more circumspect about its arms transfers since Russia’s invasion, DoD officials have said that military aid continues to flow, including a new decision to send Stinger missiles that are part of an aid package the White House announced Friday night.

“Frankly, what matters most is that they are getting support, not that we aren’t talking about it in excruciating detail,” a senior Pentagon official told POLITICO.

“There is an active war going on now, a full-on invasion of Ukraine. That wasn’t the case before the 24th [of February]” when the U.S. was tweeting its shipments of Javelins and other equipment to Kyiv, the official said.

The White House on Thursday added some details about what kind of funding it’s prepared to put behind the effort, asking Congress for $10 billion to support Ukraine and bolster European allies. The request includes $1.3 billion for weapons to send to Ukraine, another $1.2 billion in presidential authority to draw from existing U.S. military stocks, $1.8 billion to support the 15,000 troops President Joe Biden has already sent to Eastern Europe, and billions more for humanitarian efforts and intelligence gathering.

Keeping the lines of supply open in the coming weeks, and potentially months, if the fight turns into more of a hit-and-run insurgency against occupying Russian troops, will be another matter. For now, NATO has lined up solidly behind the effort in a show of rapid, collective action seen at few other moments in the alliance’s history.

But some in Europe appear to be settling in for a long haul.

“If Putin were to succeed in controlling the cities, that is not the end of the story,” said a European diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. “What we have seen is a mobilization of the whole of Ukrainian society against the Russian invasion.”

If the fight grinds on, “this is going to be an intractable conflict with Russians. And it’s going to drain them over time,” the diplomat said.

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