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What the latest U.S. military aid to Ukraine can tell us about the state of the war

This image provided by the Marine Corps shows a Switchblade drone. One hundred Switchblades — which are small enough to be carried in a backpack — are part of the new U.S. package to Ukraine.
Cpl. Alexis Moradian
This image provided by the Marine Corps shows a Switchblade drone. One hundred Switchblades — which are small enough to be carried in a backpack — are part of the new U.S. package to Ukraine.

President Biden approved another massive weapons package for Ukraine on Wednesday. That brings the total amount of U.S. assistance to Ukraine's military to more than a billion dollars since Russia invaded three weeks ago.

This latest round of aid will consist of direct transfers of equipment from the U.S. Department of Defense to the Ukrainian military, in an effort to help it ramp up security measures.

The Biden administration says the $800 million package includes 800 anti-aircraft systems, 9,000 shoulder-mounted anti-armor missile systems to destroy tanks, 7,000 small arms, including guns and grenade launchers, 20 million rounds of ammunition and drones.

Even more notable than the cost of the package is the kind of weapons it provides. Here's what they reveal about the state of the conflict and where it might be headed.

What's in the package?

Three key items are all considered very urgent.

The package provides for more Javelin missiles, which have been very effective against Russian tanks so far — perhaps the single most potent weapon that Ukraine has had.

It also includes Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, which Ukraine is already using against low-flying Russian planes and helicopters.

And it introduces 100 drones, which will reportedly be so small that soldiers can carry them in their backpacks before taking them out to deploy. They're formally known as Switchblades, but are often called "Kamikaze drones" because they explode upon hitting their target.

How do these weapons compare with Russia's?

The drones wouldn't completely close the gap between the Russians' manned aircraft. They have a small explosive charge — nothing on the scale of a fighter jet with huge, powerful bombs.

But they should enable Ukrainians to carry out additional attacks on Russian forces from the sky. As a senior U.S. defense official put it, they are intended to "deliver a punch."

And while Ukraine can't match Russia tank for tank, small units or even individuals are well-equipped to ambush Russian forces.

The common thread here is Ukrainians are relying on very agile, nimble, portable systems whereas Russian forces are using larger, more powerful and somewhat lumbering weapons systems.

Has there been movement towards the no-fly zone Ukraine has been calling for?

Ukrainian officials are still calling on Western leaders to implement a no-fly zone over its skies and provide them with MiG fighter jets, though neither is likely to happen.

The jets are a small number of older planes that belong to Poland, and U.S. officials have said they don't think they will make a big difference when it comes to air power.

And the U.S. remains very much opposed to a no-fly zone. The first step in creating one would be to attack the Russian air defense system on the ground or take out Russian planes in the sky. That would entail almost-certain combat with Russia, which Biden says is not going to happen.

Where could the conflict be headed next?

More battles are expected for Kyiv and other big Ukrainian cities, with each side likely to fight in very different ways.

U.S. military officials say the Russians have been flying an average of about 200 sorties — or aircraft missions — a day, compared to just five or 10 by the Ukrainians. This reflects both the larger and more advanced Russian air force, as well as the Russian air defense systems that can take down Ukrainian planes and pilots.

Russian forces are basically stalled outside the cities, unleashing intense shelling in an effort to encircle them and pound Ukrainians into submission.

Ukrainians can't stop these artillery attacks, but can prevent large Russian armored columns from entering their cities — and the weapons the U.S. is providing are designed to help them do exactly that.

The audio version of this story was edited by Andrew Sussman and produced by David West.

The digital version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.