WASHINGTON -- The U.S. is finalizing a massive package of military aid for Ukraine that U.S. officials say is likely to total as much as $2.6 billion. It's expected to include for the first time nearly 100 Stryker combat vehicles and at least 50 Bradley armored vehicles to allow Ukrainian forces to move more quickly and securely on the front lines in the war with Russia -- but not the tanks that Ukraine has sought.
That news came hours after a helicopter carrying Ukraine's interior minister crashed into a kindergarten in a foggy residential suburb of Kyiv on Wednesday, killing him and about a dozen other people, including a child on the ground, authorities said.
The U.S. officials said the numbers on the latest aid package could change as the Biden administration goes through final deliberations. An announcement is expected this week when defense leaders from the U.S., Europe and other regions gather in Germany to discuss military support for Ukraine. The aid is also expected to include thousands of rounds of ammunition, including rockets for air defense systems.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the aid has not yet been made public.
The decision to send the Strykers, which could be delivered within weeks, comes on the heels of announcements by the British to send Ukraine battle tanks, which have long been sought by Ukrainian leaders. The Strykers and Bradleys are armored personnel carriers.
Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl told reporters Wednesday that a new phase of the war is shaping up as Russia gets more deeply entrenched, and that Ukraine will need mechanized infantry to break through those lines.
"The Russians are really digging in. They're digging in. They're digging trenches, they're putting in these dragon's teeth, laying mines. They're really trying to fortify that FLOT, that forward line of troops," Kahl said. "To enable the Ukrainians to break through given Russian defenses, the emphasis has been shifted to enabling them to combine fire and maneuver in a way that will prove to be more effective."
Speaking at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told political leaders that Western supplies of weapons must outpace Russia's attacks, urging the world to move faster because "tragedies are outpacing life; the tyranny is outpacing democracy."
The Stryker can transport a full squad of nine infantry troops and a crew of two. It is equipped with a 30 mm gun, a machine gun and/or a grenade launcher, and can travel up to 60 miles per hour. It runs on eight wheels, which makes it more nimble, speedy and fuel-efficient than the Bradley.
The first shipment of 50 Bradleys was announced two weeks ago. Known as a "tank-killer" because of the anti-tank missile it can fire, the Bradley runs on tracks, making it more useful in muddy terrain than the Stryker.
The two vehicles serve different purposes. The Bradley brings more firepower but carries fewer troops. The more lightly armored Stryker, because it is wheeled, can move a lot faster on paved roads, meaning it can get infantry squadrons into the fight faster.
Ukraine has for months sought to be supplied with heavier tanks, including the U.S. Abrams and the German Leopard 2 tanks, but Western leaders have been treading carefully. The United Kingdom announced last week that it will send Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, but the U.S. and Germany have held off.
Kahl said the M1 Abrams has complex maintenance needs and may not be the best fit.
"The Abrams tank is a very complicated piece of equipment. It's expensive, it's hard to train on. It has a jet engine, I think it's about three gallons to the mile of jet fuel. It is not the easiest system to maintain. It may or may not be the right system," Kahl told reporters.
"One of the things that Secretary (Lloyd) Austin has been very focused on is that we should not be providing the Ukrainians systems they can't repair, they can't sustain, and that they over the long term can't afford, because it's not helpful."
Poland has expressed readiness to provide a company of Leopard tanks. But, Polish President Andrzej Duda stressed during his recent visit to the Ukrainian city of Lviv that Poland would only do so as part of a larger international coalition of tank aid to Kyiv.
German officials have conveyed their hesitance to allow allies to give Ukraine the German-made Leopards unless the U.S. also sends Ukraine the Abrams, according to a U.S. official who was not authorized to comment and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Poland and the Czech Republic have provided Soviet-era T-72 tanks to Ukrainian forces, and France has said it would send AMX-10 RC armored combat vehicles to Ukraine, designated "light tanks" in French.
The influx of tanks and armored carriers comes as Ukraine faces intense combat in eastern Ukraine around the city of Bakhmut and the nearby salt mining town of Soledar. The battles are expected to intensify in the spring.
In addition to the Bradleys, the previous U.S. aid package included 100 M113 armored personnel carriers and 55 mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles, or MRAPS. Those types of armored carriers, along with the Strykers, will better protect Ukrainian troops who are fighting a brutal campaign against Wagner forces, made up in large part of convicts from Russian prisons.
The U.S. Army has a large number of Strykers available to send. Just last year, the Army announced plans to convert its Stryker brigade combat team in Alaska to a more mobile, infantry unit better suited for frigid arctic regions.
Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskyi, the Ukrainian official who oversaw the country's police and emergency services, is the most senior official killed since Russia invaded nearly 11 months ago. His death in Kyiv, along with the rest of his ministry's leadership and the entire helicopter crew, was the second major calamity in four days to befall Ukraine, after a Russian missile struck an apartment building in the southeastern city of Dnipro, killing dozens of civilians.
There was no immediate word on whether the helicopter crash, which occurred on a foggy morning in the capital's eastern suburb of Brovary, was an accident or was related to the war. Ukrainian authorities immediately opened an investigation. No fighting has been reported recently in the capital region.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy -- addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by video link -- said the crash had a broad connection to the war.
"This is not an accident because it has been due to war and the war has many dimensions, not just on the battlefields," he said after asking the Davos audience to join him in a standing minute of silence to honor those killed. "There are no accidents at wartime. These are all war results."
Ukraine's State Emergency Service, which was operating the French-manufactured Super Puma helicopter, said at least 14 people were killed, including nine on the helicopter, and a child on the ground. It said 25 people were injured, including 11 children. Early official reports gave differing numbers of casualties.
At the scene of the crash and ensuing fire, plastic sheets covered at least four bodies. Workers cleared charred and mangled wreckage lying against an apartment building and in the kindergarten's playground. Some walls were partly demolished and blackened. The helicopter's blackened rotors protruded from a destroyed car and rested on the roof of a building's entrance.
Kyiv regional Gov. Oleksii Kuleba told Ukrainian television that emergency services were still identifying remains and that the death toll could rise.
The crash killed five Interior Ministry officials, one national police official and all three helicopter crew members, the Ukraine National Police said. Monastyrskyi's deputy Yevhen Yenin and State Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Yurii Lubkovych were among the dead, the police said.
Monastyrskyi, 42, was in charge of police and emergency services that dealt with the consequences of Russian strikes and de-mining, political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told The Associated Press.
Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said National Police Chief Ihor Klymenko has been appointed acting interior minister.
Senior Ukrainian officials routinely travel by helicopter at low altitudes and high speed during the conflict, increasing the inherent dangers associated with the flights. The tragedy may prompt Kyiv to institute a rule many countries and companies follow stating that top officials shouldn't fly on the same aircraft, Fesenko said.
The officials on the helicopter were due to visit Ukraine's northeastern Kharkiv region, local police chief Volodymyr Tymoshko said, adding on Facebook that they were "not just leaders," but "friends who I respected."
The helicopter was sold to Ukraine before the war in 2019, a French defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified, according to ministry policy.
The Security Service of Ukraine is investigating "all possible versions" of the crash, prosecutor general Andriy Kostin said on Telegram.
The crash came at a particularly dark period in the war for Ukraine, just days after the Russian strike on the apartment building in southeastern Ukraine killed 45 people, including six children -- the deadliest attack on civilians since the spring.
"The pain is unspeakable," Zelenskyy wrote on Telegram.
"Another very sad day today -- new losses," said his wife, Olena Zelenska, dabbing teary eyes as she responded to the news at the economic conference in Davos, where she was mustering support for Ukraine.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called the crash "heartbreaking."
British Home Secretary Suella Braverman called Monastyrskyi "a leading light in supporting the Ukrainian people during (Russian President Vladimir) Putin's illegal invasion." She said she was "struck by his determination, optimism and patriotism."
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is facing pressure to send tanks to Ukraine, tweeted that the crash "shows once again the huge price that Ukraine is having to pay in this war."
Information for this article was contributed by Matthew Lee, Lolita C. Baldor, Tara Copp, Aamer Madhani, Malak Harb, Andrew Meldrum, Angela Charlton and Yuras Karmanau of The Associated Press.
Gallery: Deadly helicopter crash in Ukraine