Biden administration moves toward allowing American military contractors to deploy to Ukraine

Damond Isiaka
5 Min Read


CNN
 — 

The Biden administration is moving toward lifting a de facto ban on American military contractors deploying to Ukraine, four US officials familiar with the matter told CNN, to help the country’s military maintain and repair US-provided weapons systems.

The change would mark another significant shift in the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy, as the US looks for ways to give Ukraine’s military an upper hand against Russia.

The policy is still being worked on by administration officials and has not received final sign-off yet from President Joe Biden, officials said.

“We have not made any decisions and any discussion of this is premature,” said one administration official. “The president is absolutely firm that he will not be sending US troops to Ukraine.”

Once approved, the change would likely be enacted this year, officials said, and would allow the Pentagon to provide contracts to American companies for work inside Ukraine for the first time since Russia invaded in 2022. Officials said they hope it will speed up the maintenance and repairs of weapons systems being used by the Ukrainian military.

Over the last two years, Biden has insisted that all Americans, and particularly US troops, stay far away from the Ukrainian frontlines. The White House has been determined to limit both the danger to Americans and the perception, particularly by Russia, that the US military is engaged in combat there. The State Department has explicitly warned Americans against traveling to Ukraine since 2022.

As a result, US-provided military equipment that has sustained significant damage in combat has had to be transported out of the country to Poland, Romania, or other NATO countries for repairs, a process which takes time.  US troops are also available to help the Ukrainians with more routine maintenance and logistics, but only from afar via video chat or secure phone—an arrangement that has come with inherent limitations, since US troops and contractors are not able to work directly on the systems.

Administration officials began to seriously reconsider those restrictions over the last several months, officials said, as Russia continued to make gains on the battlefield and US funding for Ukraine stalled in Congress. Allowing experienced, US government-funded American contractors to maintain a presence in Ukraine means they will be able to help fix damaged, high-value equipment much faster, officials said. One advanced system that officials say will likely require regular maintenance is the F-16 fighter jet, which Ukraine is set to receive later this year.

Companies bidding for the contracts would be required to develop robust risk mitigation plans to mitigate threats to their employees, an official said.

The discussions follow a series of decisions the US has made in recent months to try to help Ukraine beat back the Russians. In late-May, Biden gave Ukraine permission to strike targets inside Russia, near the border with the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, with US weapons—a request the US had repeatedly denied in the past. Last week, that policy appeared to expand once again, when National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Ukraine could counterstrike anywhere along the Ukraine-Russia border using US weapons.

Current and former officials familiar with the discussions about deploying contractors to Ukraine emphasized that the policy change will not result in the kind of overwhelming American contractor presence there that existed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, it would likely result in anywhere from a few dozen to a couple hundred contractors working in Ukraine at a time.

“This would be a much more focused and thoughtful effort to support Ukraine in country,” said retired Army officer Alex Vindman, who served as the director for European Affairs on former President Donald Trump’s National Security Council.

Vindman has been pushing the administration to lift the restrictions for nearly two years and said the administration has been working on a plan to ease the restrictions since earlier this year.

“Ukraine is an ally,” Vindman told CNN. “The US has keen, critical national security interests in supporting Ukraine, and there are plenty of risk mitigation measures.”

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