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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

US secretly shipped new long-range missiles to Ukraine

In an image released by the Pentagon, an M57A1 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missile is fired from the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launcher in 2012. (U.S. Army via The New York Times)

By Eric Schmitt

The United States last week secretly shipped a new long-range missile system to Ukraine, and Ukrainian forces immediately used the weapons to attack a Russian military airfield in Crimea on April 17 and Russian troops in the country’s southeast overnight Tuesday, according to a senior U.S. official.

The United States previously supplied Ukraine with a version of the Army Tactical Missile Systems — known as ATACMS — armed with wide-spreading cluster munitions that can travel 100 miles.

But Ukraine has long coveted the system’s longer-range version, with a range of about 190 miles, which can reach deeper into occupied Ukraine, including Crimea, a hub of Russian air and ground forces, and supply nodes for Moscow’s forces in the country’s southeast.

Overnight Tuesday, Ukraine used the longer-range missiles to strike Russian troops in the port city of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, the senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters.

On April 17, social media accounts in Ukraine reported large fires and explosions at a military airfield in Dzhankoi, Crimea, which the senior administration official said was also a long-range ATACMS target. In an address that evening, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the top Ukrainian commander, but did not elaborate on the attack.

In a major policy shift, President Joe Biden secretly approved the decision to send more than 100 of the longer-range missiles in mid-February, the senior U.S. official said, as well as more of the cluster munition variant. They were part of a $300 million shipment of weapons to Ukraine in March, the first new aid package for the country since funding ran out in late December.

Administration officials kept the shipment secret to avoid tipping off the Russians. When the United States has provided long-range weapons to Ukraine in the past, the Ukrainians have initially inflicted severe damage on Russian forces. But the Russians then pull back their forces and arms depots out of the weapons’ range until Ukraine can employ a new donated system with longer reach. The longer-range ATACMS were among the last major weapons systems that Ukraine wanted and the United States was reluctant to give.

Biden and his top aides dropped their reluctance to donate the longer-range missiles for several reasons, the official said. The Army decided to keep more of the missiles rather than selling them to other countries, easing Pentagon concerns about shortages. Russia’s increasing use of ballistic missiles and more attacks against critical infrastructure also bolstered Ukraine’s plea for weapons that could help counter those threats.

Additional longer-range missiles were also included in the $60.8 billion of aid for Ukraine that was part of legislation Biden signed Wednesday. In praising the infusion of military assistance, including the new missiles, lawmakers and Zelenskyy have made no mention of the fact that Ukraine had already received and employed a small number of the weapons, presumably to keep their use secret from Russia.

The initial strike using the new missiles made a fiery impact. Videos posted online by residents last week showed fires erupting after the attack. The videos have not been independently verified.

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