Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 24 May 2024

 

Exclusive | Ukraine Hits Russian Complex in Occupied Crimea With U.S.-Supplied Missiles

Approx. 950 bomblets

Designed to inflict

casualties by blast

and fragmentation.

Sources: United States Army Acquisition Support Center; Federation of American Scientists; Collective Awareness to UXO; Missile Threat
Jemal R. Brinson/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Ukraine’s first use of the longer-range variant of ATACMS in April hit an airfield in Crimea, destroying several advanced Russian air-defense missile launchers and radars, according to Ukrainian officials. They hit another Crimean airfield last week, appearing to take out several aircraft, according to satellite images.

This week, Ukrainian military officials said they had hit the port in Sevastopol, damaging a warship. While officials didn’t say what weapons had been used, Russian officials in Crimea said they had shot down nine ATACMS missiles the night of the attack.

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Ukraine’s military said it destroyed an advanced Russian S-400 air-defense system on Wednesday, which open-source analysts attributed to an ATACMS strike near occupied Mospyne in eastern Ukraine. Three weeks ago, an ATACMS strike on a training ground in the occupied Luhansk region killed dozens of Russian soldiers, analysts said.

As Crimean residents reported explosions and the sound of air-defense systems working on Thursday night, Sergei Aksyonov, a Russian-installed official in Crimea, wrote on Telegram that Ukrainian missiles had killed two “bystanders,” and an “empty commercial property” was damaged. He didn’t comment on any damage to the Alushta communications center.

On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said American weapons were being used to strike “a wide variety of targets outside the conflict zone,” though he didn’t specifically mention Crimea or any other sites.

A satellite image shows a destroyed aircraft after a Ukrainian strike on an air base in Russian-occupied Crimea last week. Photo: maxar technologies/Reuters
Smoke rose in the distance after a Ukrainian strike in Russian-occupied Krasnodon in eastern Ukraine earlier this month. Photo: Alexander Reka/Zuma Press

Mark Cancian, a former artillery officer in the U.S. Marine Corps now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Ukraine would likely focus on deep strikes while it tries to rebuild manpower in hopes of launching a more robust counteroffensive next year. Crimea, he said, was an appealing target because it has an abundance of fixed military facilities—such as airfields and ports—that can’t easily be camouflaged or spread out.

Ukraine has twice damaged the Kerch bridge, which connects Crimea to Russia, leading Russia to halt using it for military shipments because it fears they will get hit, Western intelligence analysts believe. Instead, Russian forces are moving supplies by rail through other occupied parts of Ukraine.

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“They might be able to squeeze it,” Cancian said. “I don’t think they can cut it off, but they can make Crimea uncomfortable.”

Ukraine had hoped that ATACMS missiles would help disrupt the Russians and weaken their ability to maintain their front-line defenses, enabling a Ukrainian breakthrough in a 2023 counteroffensive aimed at dealing Moscow a decisive blow.

In the end, Russia beat back the Ukrainian attacks, with Kyiv gaining minimal territory while suffering heavy losses of personnel and equipment, leaving Ukraine in a much more dire position than a year ago.

A look at the capabilities of the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS. Photo illustration: Xingpei Shen

“The problem is that the Ukrainians, at this point, don’t really have a convincing concept of victory,” Cancian said. “Before the counteroffensive, the idea was they’d take back territory bite-by-bite.”

The U.S. decision to send the longer-range ATACMS was the subject of intensive debate for well over a year. U.S. lawmakers repeatedly pressed the White House to provide the weapons while Ukraine appealed for the systems and offered assurances they wouldn’t be used to fire at targets on Russian territory.

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At first, the Biden administration was so wary of providing the ATACMS that it had Himars rocket launchers it supplied to Ukraine modified so they couldn’t be used to fire the missiles should Kyiv acquire them from other sources.

But as the conflict dragged on, the administration’s concern that the Ukraine conflict might escalate into a direct U.S.-Russia clash began to fade.

In the U.S., some members of Congress have been pressuring the Biden administration to allow Ukraine to fire ATACMS and other U.S.-made weapons into Russian territory. The ban on doing so, military analysts say, has impeded Ukraine’s efforts to halt Moscow’s recent invasion of the northeastern Kharkiv region.

George Barros, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said the U.S. could immediately alter the battlespace in Kharkiv if Washington would lift this ban, which lets Moscow move troops and weapons to the front far more efficiently than they can in other regions, where they have to disperse and camouflage positions behind the front line.

“Ukrainians are not able to engage them until they cross the international border,” he said.

Daniel Michaels and Kate Vtorygina contributed to this article

Write to Ian Lovett at ian.lovett@wsj.com

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