ATACMS, Ukraine's desperate call to receive long-range missiles | International

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Ukrainian diplomacy is as persistent as a Malaysian drop. On the international stage, every occasion is used by his ministers and by the president, Volodímir Zelenski, to demand more weapons from his allies because the future of his country depends on it. This has been the case since the start of the Russian invasion last February, but now the situation on the front has worsened for kyiv's interests, especially in the Donetsk province, where Wagner's Russian mercenaries are advancing. The demand for more powerful weapons has become an urgency: specifically, the need to receive tanks and the US ATACMS long-range missiles.

Heavy tanks and ATACMS are still two red lines that the main NATO powers have not dared to cross because they fear provoking an escalation of war by Russia. Several Eastern European countries, led by Poland, are pressing for the US and German governments to authorize the shipment of Abrams and Leopard tanks. EL PAÍS interviewed soldiers from three Ukrainian armored brigades on the front lines in the Kharkov and Donetsk provinces last week. The officers of these units confirmed that the state of their Soviet-made vehicles is getting worse because they have been used since 2014, since the war in Donbas. Not only that, the ammunition deficit is also a problem recognized by the three consulted brigades.

The Abrams, far from kyiv

Leopards are the most widely used heavy tank in Europe. Their export depends on the approval of Berlin because they are vehicles made in Germany. The Executive of Chancellor Olaf Scholz argues that the shipment of these armored vehicles should take place in an international alliance of donors, and provided that the United States also contributes its Abrams. The Undersecretary of Defense of the US Administration, Colin Kahl, threw a jug of cold water on Monday on kyiv's wishes by ruling out the supply of the Abrams, alleging that they are "very expensive and difficult to maintain" tanks. “I don't know if they are the best option,” Kahl added.

The Ukrainian media clung like a hot nail to other statements by Kahl in which he recognized, asked by the ATACMS, that it was necessary to provide weapons to kyiv that would reach the Russian positions beyond the battlefield. ATACMS are high-precision missile batteries with a range of 300 kilometers. These missiles have been manufactured by the Lockheed Martin company since the 1980s. They can be fired from the HIMARS multi-rocket launchers, also from Lockheed Martin.

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The Pentagon has officially delivered 20 HIMARS units to kyiv, the most decisive weapons available to the Ukrainian Armed Forces because they operate from 80 kilometers away —far from the range of Russian artillery— with high precision, with a destructive capacity that Russia does not have—apart from its cruise missiles—and easy to move to avoid its position being identified. The HIMARS have been decisive in the success of the Kharkiv and Kherson offensives in late 2022 because these missiles have destroyed key weapons supply points in the rear of the invader.

kyiv insists that it needs to go further, with the ATACMS, but Washington has so far considered that it cannot supply weapons that could be used to attack Russian territory or even Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed in 2014 by Vladimir Putin, a territory that the The Kremlin considers it an inalienable part of Russia. In fact, as revealed last December The Wall Street Journalthe HIMARS transferred to Ukraine were modified in the United States so that they are not used to fire long-range missiles.

fear of a world war

Zelenski and the President of the United States, Joe Biden, have been playing cat and mouse since last summer on behalf of the ATACMS. Zelenski's insistence has achieved its results, albeit halfway. 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 the 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, but Zelensky's visit to Washington served to announce that the Ukrainian leader would return to his country with an American Patriot battery. Could the same thing happen with ATACMS? asked the journalist. Biden's refusal was blunt, arguing that he was against the opinion of the European Union and the European members of NATO: "The idea of ​​supplying Ukraine with weapons essentially different from the one we are sending opens the possibility of breaking NATO, the EU and the rest of the world. As Biden said, "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. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielus Landsbergis said on his social media on January 11: “Ukraine has more than earned our support and respect. It is time to send the ATACMS and the Leopards”. The Polish president, Andrzej Duda, stated this Tuesday from the Davos forum, in Switzerland, that Zelenski has reiterated to him that without weapons such as tanks he cannot face the Russian invasion.

The Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmitro Kuleba, surprised at the end of December, a few days after the summit between his president and Biden, by assuring that there was an agreement with the United States to transfer the ATACMS missiles to Ukraine in 2023 "if the necessary conditions on the battlefield. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry does not clarify what conditions it would be. Phillips O'Brien, professor of Strategic Studies at the University of Saint Andrews (Scotland), pointed out last week in an article in The Spectator that while heavy tanks will arrive in Ukraine, ATACMS will only do so if "Russia commits blatant stupidity, something that cannot be ruled out."

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)

The officers of the 92nd Ukrainian Separate Mechanized Brigade interviewed last Thursday by this newspaper indicated that there is little time left to take advantage of the winter to launch a new offensive. In the coldest months, the frozen ground facilitates the movement of armored vehicles. But the supply of the Leopards or the Abrams would not be immediate, because it would also require at least a month of training for the platoons that operate them. ATACMS, or alternatives like the US GLSDB short-range bombs, still take more months to train.

Mijaílo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics security studies center, considers that this military aid is possible, as has been the progressive change of position of Germany with respect to the Leopards —of flatly refusing to open up to this possibility. But Samus concedes in conversation with this newspaper that crucial time is being lost because the Ukrainian Armed Forces need the ATACMS "right now."

Biden repeats that his government will not send ATACMS or warplanes to Ukraine that can hit Russian territory, but also Crimea. The dilemma for Biden, as Paul D'Anieri, an expert on Ukraine and Russia at the University of California Riverside, pointed out last December in an interview with this newspaper, is that if the kyiv troops managed to advance in a new offensive to reconquer the province of Kherson and stood at the gates of Crimea, the United States would "find itself in front of its red lines." And these, according to D'Anieri, include the fear that Putin will use the atomic bomb. But this scenario is still far away. In Donetsk, Ukraine is in a defensive position and Russia is putting all the meat on the grill to advance; the Lugansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson fronts are at a standstill because, unlike last summer and autumn, the Kremlin troops have had time to fortify their defensive lines.

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