US sends Patriot missile-defence system to Slovakia

Transfer comes as Nato ally sends its own Russian-made S-300 missile system to Ukraine

US Patriot missile launchers at Poland's Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport last month. Reuters

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The Pentagon has sent a Patriot missile-defence system to Slovakia after the Nato ally sent one of its own systems — the Russian-made S-300 — to Ukraine, US President Joe Biden said on Friday.

The temporary deployment comes as the West seeks to bolster Ukraine's defences from an onslaught of Russian missile attacks that appear to be targeting civilians.

“I want to thank the Slovakian government for providing an S-300 air defence system to Ukraine, something [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy has personally raised with me in our conversations,” Mr Biden said in a statement.

A missile hit a crowded train station in eastern Ukraine that was an evacuation point for civilians, killing dozens of people, Ukrainian authorities said on Friday.

Russia denied responsibility, but the Pentagon said Moscow had used a short-range ballistic missile.

“It is our full expectation that this was a Russian strike,” a senior US defence official said. “We believe they used a short-range ballistic missile, an SS-21.”

The SS-21 is a Soviet-era tactical ballistic missile. Moscow has accused Kyiv of carrying out the attack deliberately.

The US president added that “now is no time for complacency”, noting that the shuffling of missile systems will help Ukraine protect itself as Moscow “repositions for the next phase of this war".

Mr Biden's remarks came after Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger announced the Soviet-era S-300 transfer.

“It is our duty to help, not to stay put and be ignorant to the loss of human lives under #Russia’s aggression” Mr Heger said on Twitter.

The senior US defence official said discussions are underway with other ally nations, including Bulgaria, that also have missile-defence systems to co-ordinate potential additional swaps for Patriot batteries.

"We continue to have conversations with allies and partners who have these kinds of long-range air-defence systems," the official told Pentagon reporters.

In recent days, Russia has been redeploying and repositioning its forces in the eastern Donbas region, having retreated from Kyiv after failing to capture the capital.

The defence official estimated an increase of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine from 30 battalions to more than 40 now.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Patriot battery will be manned by US forces and should arrive in Slovakia in the coming days.

The deployment length hasn’t been fixed, he said in a statement, adding that “we continue to consult with the Slovakian government about more permanent air defence solutions".

Mr Austin said the Patriot deployment to Slovakia aligns perfectly with “previous efforts to bolster Nato's defensive capabilities” and demonstrates collective security requirements under Nato's mutual-defence Article 5 commitment.

Updated: April 08, 2022, 7:32 PM