In a previous update, we noted that the United States and NATO allies have been pointedly dropping the distinctions between "defensive" and "offensive" weaponry that sharply limited what sorts of equipment NATO countries were willing to send to Ukrainian forces. Body armor, ammunition, and anti-armor drones and missiles were readily handed over; armored vehicles and especially military aircraft were right out.
The distinction was made in an effort to not be seen as providing anything that could be used to attack Russian territory directly, out of fear that Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin would insist that NATO was now attempting to attack Russia itself. That would lead to Putin ordering retaliatory attacks on whatever NATO member he declared to be most involved, which would trigger NATO's reciprocity agreements and turn the war directly into one between NATO and Russia. The Biden administration was especially fierce about limiting such aid, knocking away proposals from NATO countries (read: Poland) that wanted jets or other offensive tools handed over—even as Ukraine's president stumped furiously for such assistance.
There are still a whole lot of reasons why Ukraine probably won't be getting planes anytime soon, but that other equipment? It's flowing. Our own speculation was that this was a direct result of Ukraine forcing a dramatic Russian retreat in the captured towns north of Kyiv, a retreat that left behind a landscape of Russian war crimes. Pictures showed evidence of the torture and summary execution of civilians, the indiscriminate targeting of civilians, and a Russian focus on looting that went past obsession to something bordering on pathetic. The evidence of those crimes was enough to goad NATO nations into taking more aggressive action; it became clear that every passing hour of Russian occupation, in the lands presently under their control, is another hour in which Russian troops are committing new war crimes in the places they still can.
Mother Jones picks up on this too, and provides some corroborating evidence from the Sunday shows confirming that yes, Russia's exposed war crimes are the reason the U.S. is now dropping its previous objections to offensive weapons delivery. Biden National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan used Meet the Press to link the two directly:
“Given the nature of the battle, how things have shifted and adjusted and what the Russians have done, frankly, killing civilians, atrocities, war crimes, we have gotten to a place in the United States and across many members of the NATO alliance where the key question is: What does Ukraine need and how can we provide it to them?”
Sullivan even boasted that the U.S. deserved some of the credit for the Russian retreat, asserting on Face The Nation that Russia "failed chiefly because of the bravery and skill of the Ukrainian armed forces, but they also failed because the United States and our partners put in the hands of those armed forces advanced weapons that helped beat back" Russian forces. That's a long way from previous administration's insistence that the United States mainly was a third party to the war—on the contrary, it's a public boast that NATO involvement is a big part of the reason Russia faced heavy enough losses to force a retreat.
It's also clearly an intentional move. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a public show of speaking with Ukrainian soldiers being trained on the use of U.S.-provided Switchblade drones in Biloxi, Mississippi, highlighting the direct U.S. training of Ukrainian troops that was no doubt being provided all along but which defense officials were circumspect in talking about. Now it's not just out in the open, the U.S. is very nearly rubbing it in the faces of their Russian counterparts.
Sullivan's statement also hints at the second reason NATO is suddenly being much more aggressive in the sort of weapons they're willing to provide Ukraine, enough so that talk of "offensive" or "defensive" weapons has largely dropped from the discourse. Sullivan lauded the "bravery and skill" of Ukraine's forces in pushing back Russia's Kyiv advance; those Ukrainian forces have shown such dramatic success that NATO countries are now much more confident that if they do take the step of supplying heavy offensive weapons, provoking likely Russian rage, it won't just be pissing into the wind. Those weapons will be used and used effectively and might even make the difference between Ukrainian defeat, long-term stalemate, or outright routing of Russia's forces.
In balancing the risks of "provoking" Putin against the potential gains of providing those weapons, the scales have now tipped heavily toward the gains. NATO now sees Russian occupation of Ukrainian towns as far more intolerable, due to the documentation of war crimes, and sees the odds of Ukraine's military being able to kick those occupiers out as being quite high, compared to what NATO's own military analysts were expecting in the early days of the war.
So Ukraine gets the weapons, and the United States is now much more willing to poke Putin in the eye.