Jen Psaki struggles to defend drones for Ukraine but no fighter jets

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday struggled to defend President Biden’s decision to give Ukraine $800 million worth of “defensive” guns, rockets and exploding drones while withholding “offensive” fighter jets to challenge Russia’s invasion.

David Sanger of the New York Times pressed Psaki at her regular briefing about the distinction, noting that even ground-based weapons can shoot down Russian planes.

“I think you just said that you didn’t want to have NATO pilots bringing down Russian planes. But under the administration’s policy of moving out this long range anti-aircraft [weaponry], it’s OK to have NATO equipment bringing down Russian planes, as long as it’s launched by Ukrainians?” Sanger asked.

“I think you’ve heard us talk a fair amount about … the planes from Poland — and again, Poland is a sovereign country so they can make decisions on their own but we have done is done an assessment of our role, the US role, and what our view would be of NATO — of these planes taking off from NATO airspace,” Psaki replied.

“Again, I would note that the equipment that we’ve provided is defensive and, you know, not offensive and we see that as being a difference.”

Sanger followed up, asking if the difference was that “the planes could be used for offensive purpose and the anti-missile systems cannot.”

“Correct. Correct,” Psaki said.

An Ukrainian solider seen posing for a photo with his RPG
A Ukrainian soldier smiles while holding an RPG.
Kaoru Ng/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded in a Wednesday speech to Congress for the US to facilitate the transfer of 28 Soviet-designed fighter jets that Poland wants to donate — something supported by prominent members of both political parties.

Biden spiked the jet transfer, saying last week it could trigger “World War III.”

Get the latest updates in the Russia-Ukraine conflict with The Post’s live coverage.

Biden responded to Zelensky’s appeal with a speech Wednesday announcing new US arms shipments, including drones and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. US officials later confirmed the aid package would include 100 Switchback drones that can be exploded by remote control after they approach a target.

Psaki said at her briefing Wednesday that the Pentagon assessed that Ukraine still has a sufficient air force and that more fighter jets were not needed.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holds a press briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. on March 16, 2022.
Psaki struggled to defend Biden’s decision to give Ukraine $800 million worth of “defensive” weaponry but not giving certain “offensive” tools during the March 16 press briefing.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

“I would note that what our department defense officials also assessed is what’s most effective, and well the Ukrainian still have squadrons of planes to utilize, as I think any military officials could confirm for you,” Psaki said.

“The types of assistance that we are providing today, including Stingers and other assistance that we’re amping up support for is exactly what we feel is effective in fighting this war.”

Reporter Jon Decker of the Gray Television network pressed Psaki on how a wide array of weapons could be deemed “defensive.”

“You put out a list of all of the military equipment included in that $800 million that’s being provided to Ukraine. Among those items, let me read them to you: 100 grenade launchers, 5,000 rifles, 1,000 pistols, 400 machine guns and 400 shotguns. Are you saying those items are not offensive weapons?” Decker asked.

The lightweight, remote-controlled 'kamikaze' weapons are designed to take out tanks or artillery positions.
Drones are part of the package heading to support Ukraine.

Psaki avoided directly replying, saying, “They are weapons that help the Ukrainian people fight against an invasion by a foreign country.”

Decker pressed, “They can be used offensively, can they not?”

“Again, they are weapons — what I’m talking about,” Psaki began, before Decker interrupted her.

“The answer is yes,” Decker interjected. “Although you don’t want to say it, that answer to that question is yes.

“Anybody who looks at that list of weapons I just mentioned would say, ‘clearly they’re offensive’ If a Ukrainian military officer or someone who is enlisted has one of these weapons, they can take out a Russian military official of some sort with these weapons. They’re offensive in nature, so why not provide more offensive weapons like this to the Ukrainian military?”

A map of the current state of the Ukraine war as of March 16, 2022.
A map of the current state of the war in Ukraine as of March 16, 2022.

Psaki ended the briefing moments later after maintaining there was a distinction.

“First of all, we are providing a range of rifles, etc.,” Psaki said. “There is a difference between a plane and planes and massive military systems — I think anybody would recognize this — and what we’re talking about, which is giving rifles and pistols to many of them farmers and people living in countrysides to defend themselves. I think there’s a difference that most people recognize.”

A senior US defense official said Friday that Ukraine is believed to still have 56 fighter jets that are able to fly about five to 10 missions a day within the country.

It’s unclear why Ukraine has not used its air force to bomb a miles-long Russian convoy north of the capital city, Kyiv, though some experts speculate that Ukrainian leaders are reserving equipment for a potential counterattack if enemy forces get closer to the capital.

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