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."