Ukrainian servicemen fire with a French self-propelled 155 mm/52-calibre gun Caesar towards Russian positions at a front line in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas on June 15, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: The White House is expected as soon as Wednesday to announce around $1 billion worth of new weapons aid for Ukraine, including anti-ship rocket systems, artillery rockets, and rounds for howitzers, people familiar with the packages said.

The aid packages, which come as US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is meeting with allies in Brussels, could be split into two categories: transfer of excess defense articles from US stocks and other weapons being funded by the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a separate congressionally authorized program.

The weaponry will include more rockets for Multiple Rocket Launch Systems (MLRS) that had been sent to Ukraine and artillery rounds for M777 howitzers and spare parts.

Ground-based Harpoon anti-ship missile launcher capabilities, secure radios, night vision and training are also expected.

The White House declined to comment.

Also on Wednesday, Ukraine showed off one of its new French-made self-propelled howitzers, firing towards Russian-controlled areas, as Kyiv urges Western countries to provide more military hardware.

At a secret frontline location in eastern Ukraine, soldiers from the 55th brigade artillery unit drove the camouflaged truck-mounted Caesar into a muddy field and fired off three rounds, accompanied by deafening booms and bright flashes.

A watching military officer said the target was also a secret, while saying it would be within the range of 38 kilometres (24 miles).

Macron's pledges

The heavy artillery system highly prized for its accuracy is part of the new arsenal of modern weaponry provided to Ukraine by multiple countries since Russia launched attacks on February 24.

President Emmanuel Macron pledged to send several systems in April, later telling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that arms supplies from Paris would “increase in intensity”.

The firing session watched by AFP journalists came as Macron on Wednesday called for “new in-depth discussions” with Ukraine, without confirming if he would travel this week to Kyiv as several media have reported.

While the US and other allies have also provided long-range howitzers, Kyiv has complained that it is still outgunned and pleaded for more heavy weapons.

Built by France’s partly state-owned arms maker Nexter, the Caesar is a 155mm howitzer mounted on a six-wheeled truck chassis, capable of firing shells at ranges of more than 40 kilometres (25 miles).

Meanwhile, Ukraine ignored a Russian ultimatum to surrender the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk yesterday as Washington urged Nato defence ministers weighing more military support for Kyiv not to lose focus, saying the stakes were too high.

Sievierodonetsk, now largely in ruins, has for weeks been the main focal point of the war. Russia had told Ukrainian forces holed up in a chemical plant there to stop “senseless resistance and lay down arms” from Wednesday morning, pressing its advantage in the battle for control of eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine says more than 500 civilians, including 40 children, remain alongside soldiers inside the Azot chemical factory, sheltering from weeks of almost constant Russian bombardment.

The mayor of Sievierodonetsk, Oleksandr Stryuk, said Russian forces were trying to storm the city from several directions but the Ukrainians continued to defend it and were not totally cut off, even though all its river bridges had been destroyed.

“We are trying to push the enemy towards the city centre ... This is an ongoing situation with partial successes and tactical retreats,” Stryuk said on television. He made no reference to the Russian ultimatum.