Ukraine Used Long-range, U.S.-provided Missiles to Strike Russian Depot and Aircraft

Olivier Matthys/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy addresses a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group ahead of a two-day NATO Defense Ministers Council at the alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 11, 2023.

KYIV – Ukraine’s military fired a version of U.S.-provided ATACMS long-range missiles early Tuesday to strike Russian military aircraft and ammunition depots in occupied Ukraine, according to a senior Ukrainian military official, marking Kyiv’s first known use of the munitions.

The military launched 18 missiles at targets in occupied Berdyansk and Luhansk, the official said.

“Today special thanks to the United States,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote on Telegram.

“Our agreements with President Biden are being implemented,” Zelensky wrote. “They are executed very accurately – ‘ATACMS’ have proven themselves.”

Ukraine had pleaded for more than a year for Washington to send ATACMS, which can strike targets 100 miles or more away – farther than other weapons that the United States has sent to Kyiv.

The version used by Ukraine to hit targets in Berdyansk, on the Azov Sea coast and in the occupied eastern Luhansk region were armed with cluster bomblets rather than a single warhead.

A U.S. official familiar with the supplies said the missiles have a range of about 100 miles, midrange for the various types of ATACMS. This was the first Ukrainian use of the missile system, the official said.

The strikes demonstrate Ukraine’s new ability to hit key targets deep inside Russian-held territory, a capacity that could allow them to significantly damage Russian equipment and arsenals and kill or wound occupying Russian troops far from the front lines.

The new capability could create much-needed momentum as Ukraine continues its push to retake territory in a slow, grinding counteroffensive in the country’s south and east.

An adviser to Zelensky, Mykhailo Podolyak, declared Tuesday that “a new chapter of this war has (un)officially begun.”

“There are no more safe places for Russian troops within the . . . internationally recognized borders of #Ukraine,” Podolyak wrote on the social media platform X. “This means that there is no possibility of retaining the #South, #Crimea, and the Black Sea Fleet in the medium term. The countdown has already begun.”

Podolyak said Russia’s energy wealth was sustaining the war but that it would not stop Ukraine’s ultimate victory. “The oil and gas needle is still delaying the end,” he wrote. “But it has become inevitable a long time ago.”

Ukraine’s special operations forces confirmed in a Telegram post Tuesday that they had carried out an overnight operation called “Dragonfly” in Berdyansk and in the occupied Luhansk region, resulting in “significant losses” on the Russian side.

Nine helicopters, an antiaircraft missile launcher, an ammunition warehouse and various special equipment being held on airfields were destroyed, the post said. The Ukrainian claim could not be independently verified.

Airfield runways were also damaged in the strikes, the post said. The senior Ukrainian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed that ATACMS weaponry was used in the operation.

Ukraine is eager to strike Russian air capabilities, including helicopters, which Russian forces deploy regularly at the front line. “The enemy is trying to keep the helicopters closer to the front line,” Yuriy Ignat, spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Force Command, told Ukrainian news channel Hromadske. “And Luhansk, Berdyansk are directly not far from the front line.”

Ukraine had long lobbied for the weapons – pronounced “attack-ems” – which would also potentially allow for farther strikes inside the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.

U.S. officials initially rebuffed the requests, concerned that Ukraine might use the U.S.-supplied weapons to strike targets inside Russia. The Biden administration has feared that such a move could dramatically escalate the involvement of the United States in the war.

Critics said that by refusing to provide the weapons, Biden was drawing an arbitrary line after sending more than $40 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

More recently, American officials have expressed concerns about the limited number of such missiles, which are fired from ground-based launchers already operated by Ukraine, on hand within the U.S. military’s inventory. They have also said that sending ATACMS was no longer necessary because Britain and France each had agreed to send different missiles, launched from fighter jets, that have a range of up to 140 miles.

The U.S.-supplied arsenal has expanded in size and scope over time, from small arms and antitank missiles early on to advanced Abrams that have arrived in recent weeks. Col. Martin O’Donnell, an Army spokesman in Europe, said Tuesday that all 31 Abrams tanks approved for transfer to Ukraine have been delivered.

Still, it appears officials gradually warmed to the idea of providing the ATACMS. In May, as preparations for Ukraine’s counteroffensive were nearing completion, Biden said that the discussion was “still in play” when asked if it was time to send the weapons to Ukraine.

On Tuesday, a Russian military blogger known as “Fighterbomber” posted on Telegram that the attacks overnight were “one of the most serious blows of all time in the Northern Military District, if not the most serious.”

“It’s pointless to write about the fact that ‘we need to draw conclusions so that this doesn’t happen again,'” the Russian blogger wrote. “This will happen again as long as the war continues. We must be prepared for this.”

Pentagon officials, nonetheless, have warned that the missiles will not solve other challenges faced by the Ukrainian military. Colin Kahl, who recently left the administration as undersecretary of defense for policy, said in July that Ukraine was already using long-range weapons to disrupt Russia’s military logistics and attack local headquarters, but was still struggling with Russia’s vast network of defenses, including trenches, obstacles and mines.

“The problem is not a hundred kilometers away; it’s one kilometer in front of them with the minefields,” Kahl said during the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado.

In recent days, fighting has also been raging in Ukraine’s northeast, particularly in some areas that had been under Russian occupation until Ukraine liberated the territory last year.

“The situation in the Kupyansk and Lyman directions has worsened significantly in recent days,” Ukraine’s ground forces commander Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky said on Telegram on Saturday. “Every day, the enemy carries out dozens of attacks by the forces of assault groups with the support of armored vehicles, conducts heavy mortar and artillery fire on our positions. However, our fighters were ready for such a development of events and gave a worthy rebuff to the enemy.”

Russian forces have also recently focused attacks on Avdiivka in the country’s east, in what appears to be one of the largest Russian assaults in recent months. But after days of heavy Russian bombardment there, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said this week that Russian President Vladimir Putin may now “be trying to temper expectations of significant Russian advances” there.