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The U.S. has pledged nearly $2 billion in new military aid to Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The U.S. just pledged nearly $2 billion in new military aid to Ukraine. The package includes a sophisticated Patriot missile battery. During this week's surprise visit to Washington and in a news conference with President Biden, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joked through an interpreter that one might not be enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) What's going to happen after Patriots are installed? After that, we will send another signal to President Biden that we would like to get more Patriots.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: The Kremlin called the new shipment a provocative step and warned of unpredictable consequences. And some in the U.S. have expressed skepticism about both the cost and the effectiveness. Among them, retired U.S. Army Major Mike Lyons. He's with us this morning. Good morning, Major.

MIKE LYONS: Hey. Good morning. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. So Ukraine has been pleading for this kind of defense system in the face of Russia's air force power, its missile attacks. Why are you worried about providing this to them?

LYONS: Well, a couple of things. First of all, I don't think it's enough, in that...

FADEL: Yeah.

LYONS: ...The Patriot missile system would only protect, let's say, one-fifth of the landmass of Ukraine. The size of Ukraine's very large. And this will create a false sense of security for them in some ways. They'll have to decide to put it only in a certain location, likely in Kyiv, where it will protect just the capital, versus critical infrastructure, where the Russians are going to target most of their cruise missiles now, I think, going forward with this system in place. It's the most sophisticated one in the world. So if we're going to give them this system, we have to give them enough where they can at least protect their own country with.

FADEL: So is the answer to give them more?

LYONS: Likely. Likely Patriot missiles, which are defensive in nature. Now, there is still risk here. The risk is that these Patriot missiles will acquire a Russian target of an airplane, let's say, a fighter plane. And they chase. And what that means is they'll - they could potentially cross over the border between Ukraine and Russia and acquire a target in Russian territory. I think that's what America is concerned about. The administration thinks that if U.S. military power is used to acquire Russian targets across - over Russia, I think that's a level of escalation that they're really uncomfortable with.

FADEL: And what could happen if a missile were to chase into Russian airspace like that?

LYONS: If it acquires that target, you now have, potentially, you know, American military hardware using against Russian military hardware over Russia. Russia could say that's an act of war. And they could likely escalate, perhaps launch a missile against known U.S. forces that are in Poland or other NATO countries that are there. So it could lead to an escalation. I think that's what the administration is concerned about.

FADEL: Now, in your view, though, do you think that the Patriot system should just not be given to Ukraine at all? Or what's the answer here?

LYONS: No, I think the system is appropriate. It's still fundamentally defensive in nature.

FADEL: OK.

LYONS: And that's the issue here. All of the systems that we provided to them are defensive. They're not necessarily going to help Ukraine win on the ground in particular. They need tanks. They need F-16s. They need other offensive platforms - long-range missile systems, another example. So I do think that the system is defensive in nature, that it can be programmed to ensure that it doesn't fly over Russian airspace. But we just haven't given them enough. We've given them a false sense of security with it.

FADEL: This Patriot system, it's complicated, needs a lot of training - typically six month. It's being - six months. It's being sped up in this case to just two months. I mean, is it also too late that it's being sent?

LYONS: No, it might be. We're likely training their soldiers now in third world countries, reports are showing, and using training simulations. But it is complex. It has a fire direction system which calculates the firing solutions, well advanced radar, which can pick up multiple targets at one time. So it is complex. It's not a video game. I think that is the other concern, that if we were going to do this, again, from a strategic perspective, we should have done it months ago and had it in place for the wintertime.

FADEL: Are you concerned at all that, you know, as Russia has said - they've described it as an escalatory step, even though the administration and you have described this as a defensive system. Are you worried that just providing the Patriot system could escalate Russia's war?

LYONS: It can. But as - what's happening now on the ground is the Ukraine military is literally destroying Russia's conventional forces, and something we just didn't expect 300 days into the war at this point. So it gets back to, what's Russia's response going to be? It'll have to be strategic. And it'll have to really start - it'll tripwire something that they probably can't imagine or can't control. So if they had a way that they could respond tactically, perhaps that would be the case. I just don't think that they have that. So I'm not necessarily worried about this escalating it from their perspective just from air defense systems. There are other things we could do clearly, though, that they would think would be escalatory.

FADEL: You mentioned - just in the few seconds we have left - that the Ukrainian forces have done well in the face of Russia's military. And the Patriot system might provide a false sense of security. What kind of aid should the U.S. be delivering in this moment?

LYONS: Well, I think the United States has got to look at what we can do to help them take the Black Sea forces out in Crimea, offensive weapons on the ground, perhaps missile systems that will allow them to go on the offensive. That's going to be the difference. I think we're waiting to see winter and see how winter goes for them.

FADEL: Retired U.S. Army Major Mike Lyons, thanks so much for your time. Happy holidays.

LYONS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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