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U.S. and allies are sending thousands of weapons to Ukraine

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As Ukraine continues to fight against Russia, the U.S. and its allies are sending thousands of shoulder-fired antitank and antiaircraft weapons to the besieged nation. Now there is talk about sending an even more formidable weapon - the S-300, a mobile air defense system that can target aircraft more than 30,000 feet in the air. To that end, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met today with officials from Slovakia, a NATO ally. Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad' talked about the sophisticated air defense system.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAROSLAV NAD': We've been in discussion with United States, with Ukraine and also with other allies on possibility to deploy or to send or to give ground assistance to Ukrainians. And we are willing to do so. We're willing to do so immediately when we have a proper replacement.

CHANG: All right. Joining us now to talk about the equipment the U.S. and NATO allies are providing is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So tell us more about this S-300. Like, how important will this be to Ukraine's arsenal if they get it?

BOWMAN: Well, it's very sophisticated and a powerful missile defense system, Ailsa. Ukraine already uses these long-range systems, and some of them have been destroyed by Russian forces. Ukraine has been asking for these for weeks. And - but this is the first indication something could happen. And, of course, it would allow Ukraine to target Russian aircraft at a much higher altitude. The Slovak defense minister wants some sort of backfill or replacement if he provides this air defense system, as he just mentioned. Secretary Austin was asked about the U.S. maybe providing the Slovaks with Patriot missile defense systems. He'd only say we're, you know, in discussions. And a senior defense official told reporters later after this meeting that the U.S. is working hard to get Ukraine some of these long-range systems.

CHANG: OK. Well, these talks come as the U.S., I know, is already providing other weaponry. Can you just talk about that? Like, what else has the U.S. supplied up to this point?

BOWMAN: Well, thousands of shoulder-fired weapons - there's the javelin, the antitank weapon, which is very effective. There've been videos of them destroying Russian tanks - also Stingers, which target helicopters at lower levels. The U.S., you may remember, gave these to the Afghan insurgents back in the 1980s. And they devastated the Soviet military. Also, there's a drone called, get this, the Switchblade. It's just six pounds and can be carried...

CHANG: Wow.

BOWMAN: ...In a backpack. And it can fire a grenade - very useful against armored vehicles and troops. All of these will continue to stall the Russians, who haven't really moved much toward Kyiv. They're still about 15 kilometers from the city center.

CHANG: Yeah. Russian forces have not made much headway in certain parts of the country. Do U.S. officials know exactly why that is?

BOWMAN: Well, a number of reasons - heavy resistance from Ukrainian forces, a lack of Russian coordination with their attacks - with airstrikes, armor and troops - also, mushy ground, which is bad for tanks and other armor. They have to stay on the roads, where Ukrainians are using these shoulder-fired munitions to hit them quite hard, sometimes darting between houses, I'm told, and firing at the armored vehicles on the road. But officials say the Russians still have a lot of firepower, missiles fired from inside Russia and also from the Black Sea. Also, outside Kyiv, U.S. intelligence is picking up more Russian artillery pieces moving up. And they could be used to pound Kyiv - really create kind of a siege, which, of course, would be much more deadly for civilians.

CHANG: Well, as this invasion wears on, I mean, in many ways, Tom, it feels like this whole invasion is more of an attempt to just break the will of the Ukrainian people. And I'm wondering, if it is that, could that mean more targeting of civilian sites?

BOWMAN: No, absolutely - just like we heard from Tim at Mariupol - that theater. They're also hitting apartment buildings. And this is why you're hearing President Biden and others starting to use the term war crimes.

CHANG: That is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.