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Not leaving empty handed: Zelensky gets his ATACMs

Not leaving empty handed: Zelensky gets his ATACMs

But they may not be the game changer he wanted

Analysis | QiOSK

So it looks like Ukrainian President Zelensky did not leave Washington empty handed this week after all. According to reports this afternoon, the Biden administration has relented and will transfer long range ATACMs, long considered too escalatory for the conflict, to Ukraine in the “upcoming weeks,” according to POLITICO.

The ATACMs variant that the U.S. is reportedly considering, according to the Washington Post (which, unlike POLITICO says the administration is "nearing an announcement") uses controversial cluster munitions, another old "red line" for the administration in this war, instead of a single warhead. This is not exactly what the Ukrainians had hoped for.

"You don't take out big, high-value targets with cluster munitions," points out my colleague George Beebe, QI's Director of Grand Strategy. "(These ATACMs) might complicate things well behind Russian front lines, causing the Russians to have to move some supply depots and worry a bit more about supply lines. But even then, nothing close to a game-changer. Russia can and will adjust."

It is interesting, nonetheless, that Biden waited until after Zelensky was out of town, away from microphones and safely ensconced in meetings in Canada before allowing his people to drop this bombshell (pun intended). That’s a typical Friday in Washington — save your potentially controversial news for Friday afternoon.

According to POLITICO, Biden made the pledge behind closed doors Thursday and two unnamed officials tipped off the press today :

President Joe Biden promised his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, that the United States will soon provide Kyiv with a small number of long-range missiles to help its war with Russia, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

Biden made the pledge to Zelenskyy during the Ukrainian leader’s visit to the White House on Thursday, fulfilling a long-held wish by Kyiv, according to the officials who like others for this story were granted anonymity to speak about private conversations.

Ukraine, for all obvious reasons, has wanted ATACMs (Army Tactical Missile Systems ) because they have a range of 190 miles which would allow its military to target Russian assets inside Russian territory, including Russia-occupied Crimea. Currently they have American HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems), which have a range of about 50 miles.

As my colleague, reporter Connor Echols pointed out in a story on Sept. 12 the HIMARs were once a “red line” for the Biden administration, which feared they would be too escalatory. The weapons were transferred nonetheless starting in June 2022. In July 2022, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters, at the suggestion that ATACMs would be next, that such a transfer would risk putting the U.S. and Russia on “the road towards a third world war.”

It’s clear now, after the Abrams tanks, another red line, and approving the transfer of F-16, another red line, from European partners to Ukraine, that the ATACMs were inevitable. The White House wants to give Ukrainians the best possible chance to fulfill the goals of its struggling counteroffensive.

While many say the move may only draw us closer to a direct conflict with Russia, others like Beebe say it would be more impactful if the ATACMs were fitted with unitary missiles, which would have improved Ukrainians' lethal capabilities considerably.

"Ukraine wanted a weapon with long-range strategic strike capability," he added. "They are getting instead a long-range anti-personnel weapon."

President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden greet President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Mrs. Olena Zelenska of Ukraine at the South Portico of the White House. (Photo by Allison Bailey/NurPhoto)
Analysis | QiOSK
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Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, the U.S. has focused on getting aid to Ukraine to help it win back all of its pre-2014 territory, a goal complicated by Kyiv’s systemic shortages of munitions and manpower. But that response neglects a more strategic approach to the war, according to Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who spoke in a recent panel hosted by Carnegie.   “There is a vortex of emergency planning that people have been, unfortunately, sucked into for the better part of two years since the intelligence first arrived in the fall of 2021,” Weiss said. “And so the urgent crowds out the strategic.”   Historian Stephen Kotkin, for his part, says preserving Ukraine’s sovereignty is critical. However, the apparent focus on regaining territory, pushed by the U.S., is misguided.   “Wars are never about regaining territory. It's about the capacity to fight and the will to fight. And if Russia has the capacity to fight and Ukraine takes back territory, Russia won't stop fighting,” Kotkin said in a podcast on the Wall Street Journal.  And it appears Russia does have the capacity. The number of troops and weapons at Russia’s disposal far exceeds Ukraine’s, and Russian leaders spend twice as much on defense as their Ukrainian counterparts. Ukraine will need a continuous supply of aid from the West to continue to match up to Russia. And while aid to Ukraine is important, Kotkin says, so is a clear plan for determining the preferred outcome of the war.  The U.S. may be better served by using the significant political leverage it has over Russia to shape a long-term outcome in its favor.   George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft, says that Russia’s primary concerns and interests do not end with Ukraine. Moscow is fundamentally concerned about the NATO alliance and the threat it may pose to Russian internal stability. Negotiations and dialogue about the bounds and limits of NATO and Russia’s powers, therefore, are critical to the broader conflict.   This is a process that is not possible without the U.S. and Europe. “That means by definition, we have some leverage,” Beebe says.   To this point, Kotkin says the strength of the U.S. and its allies lies in their political influence — where they are much more powerful than Russia — rather than on the battlefield. Leveraging this influence will be a necessary tool in reaching an agreement that is favorable to the West’s interests, “one that protects the United States, protects its allies in Europe, that preserves an independent Ukraine, but also respects Russia's core security interests there.”  In Kotkin’s view, this would mean pushing for an armistice that ends the fighting on the ground and preserves Ukrainian sovereignty, meaning not legally acknowledging Russia’s possession of the territory they have taken during the war. 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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin/File Photo
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin/File Photo

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