ATACMS: Ukraine urgently requests long-range missiles

The government in Kyiv insists that the future of the war against Russia depends on NATO sending more potent weaponry

Misil estadounidense ATACMS
Shot of an American ATACMS missile, last October in South Korea.Handout (Getty Images)

On the international stage, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his ministers have used every opportunity to ask for more weapons from Ukraine’s allies. According to the government in Kyiv, the future of the war against Russia depends on the delivery of more potent weaponry.

After Russia made initial advances in February of 2022, the Ukrainians managed to turn the tide, pushing the invaders back. However, over the past few weeks, facing freezing weather conditions and endless bombardments, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are struggling on the frontlines in the east of the country. Meanwhile, Russia’s privately-hired Wagner Group mercenaries are advancing, committing atrocities along the way.

Zelenskiy’s request for more powerful weapons to retaliate and regain occupied territory has become more and more urgent. Specifically, his administration is requesting American and German-made tanks, along with long-range MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS).

Delivering heavy tanks and ATACMS are still two red lines that the main NATO powers are not willing to cross. They fear that, by sending Ukraine such weaponry, they will provoke an escalation in the war with Russia, while compromising the $1 billion in oil and gas that the Kremlin sells to Germany on a daily basis. However, several Eastern European countries – led by Poland – are pressing the US and German governments to authorize the shipment of Abrams and Leopard tanks to Kyiv.

Last week, EL PAÍS interviewed soldiers from three Ukrainian armored brigades on the front lines in the Kharkiv and Donetsk provinces. The officers confirmed that the state of their Soviet-made vehicles is getting worse, as they have been in use since the 2014 war in the Donbas. A lack of ammunition has also become a nagging problem, after nearly 10 months of repelling Russian assaults.

Leopards are the most widely-used heavy tanks in Europe. Their export to Ukraine depends on the approval of Berlin, as the vehicles are made in Germany. Chancellor Olaf Scholz says that the shipment of these armored vehicles will only take place if the United States agrees to supply Abrams tanks, and should take place within the framework of an international donor alliance.

ATACMS fires a missile into the East Sea during a joint missile drill between South Korea and the United States aimed at countering North Korea's ICBM test, July 29, 2017. on the East Coast, South Korea.
ATACMS fires a missile into the East Sea during a joint missile drill between South Korea and the United States aimed at countering North Korea's ICBM test, July 29, 2017. on the East Coast, South Korea.Handout (Getty Images)

Colin Kahl – the US undersecretary of defense – has ruled out the supply of Abrams tanks, claiming that they are “very expensive and difficult to maintain.” However, when pressed by the media, Kahl admitted that American-made long-range missiles are necessary to be able to strike Russian positions. ATACMS are high-precision missiles with a range of nearly 200 miles. They’ve been manufactured by the Lockheed Martin company since the 1980s. They can be fired from HIMARS multi-rocket launchers, also from Lockheed Martin.

The Pentagon has officially delivered 20 HIMARS to Kyiv. These light rocket launchers are currently the most decisive weapons available to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, as they have a range of 50 miles. With high precision, rockets launched from this system have a destructive capacity that Russia does not possess. They can also be moved easily, to hide their positions. In late-2022, HIMARS proved decisive to the success of the Kharkiv and Kherson offensive, allowing the Ukrainians to hit key Russian supply points.

Kyiv insists that it needs to go further, but Washington doesn’t want to supply ATACMS, for fear that the Ukrainians will use them to hit Russian territory, not just occupied Ukrainian positions. In fact, this past December, The Wall Street Journal revealed that the HIMARS transferred to Ukraine were first modified in the United States, so that they could not be used to fire long-range missiles.

Zelenskiy and President Joe Biden have been discussing the use of ATACMS since last summer. Zelesnky’s insistence has achieved partial results. On December 21, at the press conference given by the two leaders in Washington, a journalist from Ukrainian public television questioned the American president about the possible delivery of ATACMS. The journalist reminded Biden that, at the beginning of 2022, the White House considered it impossible to transfer Patriot anti-aircraft defense systems to Kyiv, yet Zelenskiy’s visit to Washington resulted in the Ukrainian leader returning to his country with an American Patriot battery. The journalist asked: Could the same change of position happen with regard to the ATACMS?

Biden’s refusal, however, was blunt. He said that the move was opposed by the EU and the European members of NATO: “The idea of supplying Ukraine with [these] weapons… opens the possibility of breaking NATO, the EU and the rest of the world.”

“European leaders don’t want to go to war with Russia… they don’t want World War III.”

But most EU Member States in Eastern Europe do want to see ATACMS in Ukraine. On his social media accounts on January 11, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielus Landsbergis posted the following message: “Ukraine has more than earned our support and respect. It’s time to send the ATACMS and the Leopards.”

On Tuesday, January 17, Polish President Andrzej Duda used the Davos Forum in Switzerland to reiterate what Zelenskiy has told him: that without weapons such as tanks, Ukraine cannot face the Russian invaders.

The Ukrainian Foreign Minister – Dmitro Kuleba – surprised everyone a few days after Zelensky’s December visit to DC, by assuring the media that there was an agreement with the United States to transfer ATACMS to Ukraine in 2023 “if the necessary conditions on the battlefield are met.” The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has not clarified what these conditions would be.

Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, noted last week in an article in The Spectator that, while heavy tanks will reach Ukraine, ATACMS are likely to only be sent if “Russia commits a flagrant stupidity… something that cannot be ruled out.”

The officers of the 92nd Ukrainian Mechanized Brigade – interviewed last Thursday by EL PAÍS – indicated that there is little time left to take advantage of the winter to launch a new offensive against Russia. In the coldest months, the frozen ground facilitates the movement of armored vehicles. But even with a supply of Leopards or Abrams, at least a month of training would be required for the platoons to be able to operate them. The training required to effectively utilize long-range missile systems takes even longer.

Biden has repeatedly said that his government will not send ATACMS or warplanes to Ukraine that can hit Russian territory or Crimea. Paul D’Anieri – an expert on Ukraine and Russia at the University of California, Riverside – told this newspaper in December that if the Ukrainian troops manage to reconquer the province of Kherson and reach Crimea – which has been occupied by Russia since 2014 – the United States will find itself “stepping over its own red lines.” D’Anieri notes that this would involve the fear of Putin considering the use of atomic weapons.

However, such a scenario doesn’t appear to be anywhere on the horizon. In Donetsk, Ukraine is still in a defensive position, while the fighting in the Luhansk and Kherson fronts is at a standstill. Putin’s forces have managed to fortify their defensive positions – but they also haven’t managed to push ahead.

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