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OPINION

Stones from the sky. Ukraine can be saved from constant bombardment only if the U.S. authorizes ATACMS strikes on Russian territory

In recent months, the Russian aerial campaign against Ukraine has become particularly active, with Su-34s sometimes launching more than 100 bombs a day from the relative sanctuary of Russian airspace. Ukraine's lack of air defense assets remains a critical problem. However, Kyiv's Western partners can help by buying up and transferring Patriot systems mothballed by Israel, and also by lifting the ban on the use of U.S.-supplied ATACMS missiles for strikes against air bases and other military targets inside Russia. John Hardie, Russia Program Deputy Director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains why such steps are long overdue.

RU

Mykhailo, an eight-year-old from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, was asked to do something no child should ever have to do. After Russia bombed Kharkiv’s Epicenter shopping center on May 25, police asked the boy to provide DNA to help identify the body of his father, Oleksandr, one of 19 people killed by the airstrike, which injured 54 more. Following the attack, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy once again implored his Western backers for more aid to protect Ukraine’s skies.

The ruins of the Epicenter shopping mall in Kharkiv in the aftermath of the Russian air strike on May 25
The ruins of the Epicenter shopping mall in Kharkiv in the aftermath of the Russian air strike on May 25

The United States should answer that call. First, Washington should help Kyiv obtain more air defenses, including by acquiring Patriot systems that Israel is mothballing. Second, while the Biden administration has belatedly allowed Ukraine to use some American weapons for strikes on Russian territory, that decision doesn’t go far enough. Washington should also permit Ukraine to use U.S.-supplied ATACMS missiles to strike airbases and other military targets inside Russia.

A shortage of air defenses is one of the foremost problems currently facing Ukraine. Although Russia has failed to destroy most of Ukraine’s surface-to-air missile systems, Kyiv lacks enough air defenses to protect all its vast territory. And Ukraine is short on interceptor missiles for the systems it does have.

The Russians have exploited this vulnerability. Since March, Russian missile and drone strikes have knocked out around 40 percent of Ukraine’s power generation capacity, an official from Ukrenergo, the country’s national electricity transmission system operator, said on May 28. This not only hurts Ukraine’s economy but could also undermine what’s left of its defense industry — at a time when it’s sorely needed. The situation will get tougher as electricity demand increases in the summer and winter. Russia will likely seize this opportunity by redoubling its strikes.

Since March, Russian missile and drone strikes have knocked out around 40 percent of Ukraine’s power generation capacity

Meanwhile, Russia has increasingly used glide bombs to pound Ukrainian military positions and population centers near the front lines. In early 2023, Russia introduced the UMPK, short for “Universal Gliding and Correction Module” (Universal’nyy modul’ planirovaniya i korrektsii). The UMPK is an inexpensive kit that turns free-fall bombs into guided glide bombs that can be launched from outside the range of most Ukrainian air defense systems. Russia has recently fielded another glide bomb, the UMPB D-30SN, which likely has a longer range. Although imperfect, these hastily developed weapons have helped meet Moscow’s need for cheap standoff guided munitions.

This has allowed the Russian Air Force to influence the battlefield to a greater degree than it could earlier in the war. Russian Su-34 strike fighters are dropping over 100 bombs per day, compounding the effect of Moscow’s quantitative advantage in artillery. The UMPK played a key role in Russia’s capture of Avdiivka in February following a bloody, monthslong battle. Russian glide bombs have similarly pummeled Chasiv Yar, a small but militarily significant city in eastern Ukraine that Moscow’s forces are currently attempting to take. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, reportedly hadn’t suffered a bomb strike since 2022 — until the UMPB D-30SN was introduced in March. Since then, Russia has conducted regular strikes in Kharkiv using the UMPB D-30SN, including the May 25 strike on the Epicenter shopping complex.

A UMPK module
A UMPK module

Given these threats, it’s no surprise that Kyiv is begging its Western partners for more air defenses, particularly U.S.-made Patriots. The Patriot is Ukraine’s most capable air defense system — and one of its only systems that can reliably intercept ballistic missiles. At times, Kyiv has pushed some of its several Patriot batteries closer to the front lines to ambush Russian aircraft. This has allowed the Ukrainians to shoot down some Russian jets and helicopters, though it also comes with risks. In one instance, Russia managed to destroy two launching stations from a Patriot battery near the city of Pokrovsk in Donetsk Oblast.

The Ukrainians have shot down some Russian jets and helicopters with Patriots, but it comes with risks

A German-led initiative has scrounged up some additional air defense systems for Ukraine — but nowhere near what Kyiv is asking for, as NATO countries themselves are already short on ground-based air defenses. According to Zelenskyy, Ukraine needs at least seven more Patriots and ideally 25 for full coverage, in addition to its various other systems. Western-provided F-16 fighter aircraft, set to begin arriving in Ukraine later this year, may help to a degree but won’t change the situation fundamentally.

The Biden administration reportedly is considering sending Ukraine another Patriot battery. That’d be a good start. But Washington could potentially acquire many more Patriots by turning to its ally Israel.

On April 30, the Israeli military announced it would mothball its Patriots over the following two months. Israel reportedly has eight Patriot batteries, specifically the PAC-2 GEM-T version. The Israeli Patriots admittedly are on the older side, but Ukraine certainly won’t turn them down. In addition to helping Ukraine better defend its cities and critical infrastructure, having more Patriots would grant Kyiv greater flexibility to move batteries closer to the front lines to push back Russian aircraft carrying glide bombs. Washington should work to convince Jerusalem to sell or donate its Patriots to the United States, which should then give them to Ukraine.

Having more Patriots would grant Kyiv greater flexibility to move batteries closer to the front lines to push back Russian aircraft carrying glide bombs

Furthermore, it’s long past time for the Biden administration to untie Ukraine’s hands regarding strikes on Russian territory using the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS.

When Washington gave Kyiv ATACMS, it made the Ukrainians promise not to use the missiles against targets inside Russia. The United Kingdom and France attached similar conditions to the Storm Shadow and SCALP-EG air-launched cruise missiles they provided to Ukraine. So, while Ukraine has used its Western missiles for numerous strikes in Crimea and other occupied territories, Moscow’s forces have enjoyed safe haven within Russia itself, save for strikes by less powerful Ukrainian-made one-way attack drones.

In recent weeks, a number of European governments have argued that Kyiv should be allowed to take the gloves off. In late May, President Biden belatedly allowed Ukraine to use American-supplied rocket and tube artillery systems to hit military targets across the border near Kharkiv, where Russia recently launched an offensive. But the Biden administration has retained its prohibition on ATACMS strikes inside Russia.

That needs to change. Kyiv should be permitted to use ATACMS to strike military targets on Russian territory, including airbases from which Russian aircraft attack Ukraine. Although Ukraine theoretically could also employ its British or French missiles for this purpose, ATACMS would provide unique value. As a ballistic rather than cruise missile, ATACMS is harder for Russia to shoot down. In addition, Ukraine has received ATACMS variants that have cluster munition warheads, useful for striking parked aircraft and air defense systems. And Kyiv’s stocks of Storm Shadows and SCALP-EGs are likely limited, so ATACMS would provide additional capacity.

Moreover, although British and French leaders have expressed openness to allowing Ukraine to use their missiles for strikes on Russian territory, Zelenskyy recently explained that formal approval hinges on “consensus” with Washington. In other words, a positive U.S. decision on ATACMS could also unlock UK and French permission to use Storm Shadow and SCALP-EG missiles inside Russia.

To mitigate the risk of Russian escalation, Washington could maintain certain restrictions. For example, the administration could prohibit Ukraine from using ATACMS against critical infrastructure that doesn’t directly support Russian military operations.

Russian missiles, drones, and bombs have wrought far too much death and destruction in Ukraine. To protect its skies, Kyiv needs its American partners to show some political will. That means both securing additional air defense systems for Ukraine and allowing the Ukrainians to punch back against the Russian aggressors.

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