U.S. sends Ukraine seized Iranian-made weapons

U.S. sends Ukraine seized Iranian-made weapons

The Pentagon has provided Ukraine with thousands of Iranian-origin weapons seized en route to Houthi militants in Yemen, U.S. officials said Tuesday, marking the Biden administration’s latest infusion of emergency support for Kyiv while a multibillion-dollar aid package remains stalled in Congress.

The weapons include 5,000 Kalashnikov rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, along with a half-million rounds of ammunition. They were discovered aboard four “stateless vessels” between 2021 and 2023 and made available for Ukraine through a Justice Department civil forfeiture program targeting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East.

The arms transfer on April 4 is a striking development, underscoring the administration’s scramble to sustain a once-robust pipeline of U.S. assistance to Ukraine while officials warn that political gridlock in the Republican-led House is costing Kyiv on the battlefield. That the weapons were effectively sourced from Iran also is significant, as Russia has relied on the regime to bolster its military capacity, and with Washington’s long-running feud with Tehran having once more neared a boiling point in recent days.

Administration officials have said Ukraine faces a range of bleak scenarios if additional U.S. military aid does not materialize. Russian forces have mounted an aggressive push, backed by devastating glide bombs, to break through Ukrainian lines and capture more ground in the country’s east. President Volodymyr Zelensky has said his beleaguered military, challenged by dwindling ammunition stocks, is “trying to find some way not to retreat.”

Central Command, which has ramped up efforts to intercept Iranian weapons bound for Yemen’s Houthis amid the militants’ months-long assault on commercial and military vessels, said the cache sent to Ukraine is enough to supply rifles to an entire brigade.

Reached after Tuesday’s announcement, a Ukrainian commander posted in the country’s east estimated that a half-million rounds of ammunition would last up to a month stretched across three battalions, which make up about 600 soldiers each when at full strength.

Importantly, the inventory disclosed by Central Command does not include artillery shells, which are among Ukraine’s most dire battlefield needs. Ukrainian commanders have been forced to ration both, leaving troops and civilians increasingly vulnerable to Russian attacks.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who has refused to hold a vote on a Senate-approved national security package that also includes aid for U.S.-ally Israel and other national security priorities, is expected to introduce a plan for additional Ukraine aid later this month. But he has not said when the House might vote on it.

Johnson has faced criticism from Democrats for not acting on the legislation, while some Republicans who vehemently oppose additional spending on the war have said he will put his speakership at risk if he tries to do so.

Ukraine is not seeking “someone to fight the fight for them,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, told lawmakers Tuesday. “They’re asking for the means to sustain their efforts.”

Austin predicted that soon the Ukrainian military would “atrophy” without more American weaponry.

The alarming battlefield picture has prompted officials in Washington and across Europe to reconsider what risks they are willing to take to their own security to continue to assist Ukraine.

Last month, for instance, the Pentagon announced that it would send $300 million in additional U.S. weapons to Kyiv after finding “unanticipated cost savings” in recent arms contracts. That package was the last sent to Ukraine.

The equipping of Ukraine with Iranian weapons spotlights an unusual scenario in modern conflict. Iran has provided Russia with substantial numbers of one-way attack drones that have been aimed at Ukrainian military units and its civilian infrastructure. The arms delivery announced Tuesday creates the possibility that a Ukrainian soldier could bring down an Iranian-made drone with a lucky shot from a confiscated Iranian-origin machine gun.

The batch of weapons provided to Ukraine were inspected and deemed safe and in working condition, said a U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the transfer process. Ukrainian troops have in the past voiced frustration over the condition of some U.S.- and Western-provided weapons, which are often from older warehouse stocks.

The Pentagon has worked to track and disrupt Iran’s arms shipments to its proxy forces throughout the Middle East with a particular focus of late on those bound for Yemen, where the Houthis have claimed their attacks on commercial vessels are intended as a show of solidarity with Hamas fighters battling Israeli forces in Gaza.

Those attacks had for a time coincided with a rise in violence by Iran-backed groups against U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Syria. Over the winter, after the United States retaliated for the deaths of three American soldiers in Jordan, hostilities in those countries ebbed.

But tensions peaked again in recent days after Israel’s attack earlier this month on a diplomatic facility in Syria killed senior Iranian commanders. U.S. officials have denied that Washington was involved, but Tehran maintains that as Israel’s principal supporter, the United States “must be held accountable.”

Isabelle Khurshudyan in Kyiv and Abigail Hauslohner, Dan Lamothe and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.  » …
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