Ukraine Wants Longer-Range Ammunition for Donbas Gunfight

“We’re still not giving them what they want,” one U.S. source told Foreign Policy.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A crater and damaged building in the Donbas
A crater and damaged building in the Donbas
A young girl walks by a crater in front of a damaged apartment building after a strike in the city of Sloviansk in the Donbas, eastern Ukraine, on May 31. Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

The Biden administration is under pressure from Ukrainian officials and some in Washington to provide longer-range missiles to Ukraine after announcing a plan to send four multiple launch rocket systems to Kyiv earlier this week.

Pressure on the White House has steadily increased over the past two months, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky began demanding the U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which can fire up to six rounds off the back of a truck. The new $700 million military aid package also includes 1,000 more Javelin anti-tank missiles, 6,000 anti-armor weapons, and four more Soviet-era Mi-17 helicopters.

The U.S. decision to send precision-guided Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) pods along with the systems, which only reach up to 40 miles, comes after weeks of Ukrainian officials insisting to American counterparts in official calls that they would not fire the weapons into Russia, which the Biden administration fears could provoke a wider war. Two Ukrainian officials told Foreign Policy that Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov sent an official letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin indicating that Ukraine would not fire on Russia, a pledge that was backed up in a subsequent phone call between the two defense leaders. Ukraine also made the pledge in a conversation between Dmytro Kuleba and Antony Blinken, the top Ukrainian and U.S. diplomats, and between Gens. Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Mark Milley, both nations’ defense chiefs. Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy official, told reporters yesterday that Zelensky also made assurances to Biden the system would not be used against Russian soil.

The Biden administration is under pressure from Ukrainian officials and some in Washington to provide longer-range missiles to Ukraine after announcing a plan to send four multiple launch rocket systems to Kyiv earlier this week.

Pressure on the White House has steadily increased over the past two months, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky began demanding the U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which can fire up to six rounds off the back of a truck. The new $700 million military aid package also includes 1,000 more Javelin anti-tank missiles, 6,000 anti-armor weapons, and four more Soviet-era Mi-17 helicopters.

The U.S. decision to send precision-guided Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) pods along with the systems, which only reach up to 40 miles, comes after weeks of Ukrainian officials insisting to American counterparts in official calls that they would not fire the weapons into Russia, which the Biden administration fears could provoke a wider war. Two Ukrainian officials told Foreign Policy that Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov sent an official letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin indicating that Ukraine would not fire on Russia, a pledge that was backed up in a subsequent phone call between the two defense leaders. Ukraine also made the pledge in a conversation between Dmytro Kuleba and Antony Blinken, the top Ukrainian and U.S. diplomats, and between Gens. Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Mark Milley, both nations’ defense chiefs. Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy official, told reporters yesterday that Zelensky also made assurances to Biden the system would not be used against Russian soil.

“We’re not seeing the Ukrainian defenses buckle. They’re hanging on, but it is a grinding fight,” Kahl said on Wednesday. “And we believe that these additional capabilities will arrive in a time frame that’s relevant and allow the Ukrainians to very precisely target the types of things they need for the current fight.”

But the purpose of Ukraine’s commitments, U.S. sources and Ukrainian officials told Foreign Policy, was to get longer-range weapons, not the fanciest new system. Despite the weeks’ worth of back-and-forth wrangling over the system, Ukrainian officials said that they were in the dark about the exact weapons that would be sent almost up until Biden announced the move in a New York Times op-ed on Tuesday night.

As Russia’s focus in the war shifted from the Kyiv region, dense in forests and urban sprawl, to the flatter terrain of the Donbas, Ukraine’s weapons needs have also evolved, with its forces coming under a barrage of Russian artillery fire. “These longer-range weapons are more important now than they were in the beginning,” said William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, speaking at an event hosted by the United States Institute of Peace on Wednesday. “The current phase is wide-open territory … you can’t sneak up like you could in the forest.”

The decision not to send the highest-caliber munitions along with the system, which the Ukrainians will train on for three weeks in Eastern Europe before it is shipped to the front lines, has rankled some officials in Washington and in Kyiv.

“We are knowingly providing a less capable system despite the fact that they pledged they wouldn’t use the more capable system in ways we didn’t like,” one U.S. source briefed on the aid package told Foreign Policy, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing weapons transfers. “We’re still not giving them what they want.”

A source close to the Ukrainian government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that there was “frustration” and “disappointment” at the decision not to arm the country with longer-range weapons. “Each hour, let alone each day and week, is critical for Ukraine,” they said.

HIMARS, which other NATO allies in Eastern Europe have also pursued to stave off Russian attacks, can also fire so-called ATACMS—short for Army Tactical Missile System—rounds that can hit targets up to 186 miles away, enabling Ukrainian soldiers to outduel Russian artillery without getting hit themselves. The guided MLRS rounds that the United States sent only have a range of 40 miles, which Kahl, the Pentagon official, said would be enough to hit Russian targets on Ukraine’s soil that Kyiv had identified to American officials.

“The point of HIMARS is not the launchers, it is the munition—and for HIMARS this is either a rocket or missile,” one Ukrainian official told Foreign Policy in a text message, who also requested anonymity to discuss ongoing weapons transfers. “Only the munition matters, the launcher is not that important whether it is HIMARS or M270, no one buys a pack of cookies to eat the cardboard box.”

As the fight in the Donbas has turned into an artillery duel, with Russia overrunning much of Luhansk oblast in a bid to overtake the key city of Severodonetsk, Ukrainian officials increasingly worry that they could be outmanned and outgunned. In an interview with Sky News earlier this week, Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader, said that Ukraine was losing 60 to 100 troops in the Donbas each day, with potentially hundreds more injured. Ukrainian officials complained for weeks that long-range weapons needed to fight Russia were not pouring into the country fast enough.

“This is unfortunately a chronic problem that we have in the U.S. government that somehow something we might do might provoke Russia,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe now at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank. “They don’t need any provocation for what they’re doing. It’s probably well intended, but it is misguided to not provide the longer-range ATACMS.”

But the announcement of HIMARS, which the Biden administration had held back on for fear of Russia escalating the conflict into a wider war, may also prompt the United States and Western allies to begin sending higher-grade weapons into Ukraine. Politico reported on Wednesday that the British government is set to send another multiple rocket launch system—the M270—to Ukraine, which has a launcher that is mounted on a tracked Bradley armored fighting vehicle chassis. And Reuters reported that the Pentagon is likely to send Ukraine a variant of the MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone that can be outfitted with Hellfire missiles, once the U.S. weapon of choice in targeting terrorist groups.

And after the dispatch of U.S. aid packages worth about $4.6 billion since the start of the war just over three months ago, some experts believe that Russia won’t be able to sustain the offensive, despite major advantages in troop levels. A British Defence Intelligence assessment released Thursday said that Russia would likely need a short tactical pause in the Donbas to attempt more contested river crossings in an effort to seize parts of Donetsk oblast. And experts believe Ukraine is still waiting for some of the most effective Western systems to arrive.

“We’re probably about at least another two or three weeks away before the full effect of all the stuff we have been providing really begins to be felt,” said Hodges, the former U.S. lieutenant general. “Imagine how much better Ukraine is going to be once all the stuff we were providing—us, the U.K., Czechs, and Poles—begins to really show up in force.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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