WASHINGTON – Flush with success in northeast Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pressing President Joe Biden for a new and more powerful weapon: a missile system with a range of 190 miles, which could reach far into Russian territory.
Zelenskyy insists to U.S. officials that he has no intention of striking Russian cities or aiming at civilian targets, even though President Vladimir Putin’s forces have hit apartment blocks, theaters and hospitals in Ukraine throughout the war. The weapon, Zelenskyy said, is critical to launching a wider counteroffensive, perhaps early next year.
Biden is resisting, in part because he is convinced that over the past seven months, he has successfully signaled to Putin that he does not want a broader war with the Russians – he just wants them to get out of Ukraine.
A shipment of long-range guided missiles would likely be seen by Moscow as a major provocation, Biden has concluded.
“We’re trying to avoid World War III,” Biden often reminds his aides, echoing a statement he has made publicly as well.
The argument over the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, comes at a critical moment, when officials in the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies appear more concerned than ever that Putin could escalate the war to compensate for his humiliating retreat.
They do not know what form that escalation might take. But many of the options they are preparing for are bleak: more indiscriminate bombardment of Ukrainian cities, a campaign to kill senior Ukrainian leaders or an attack on supply hubs outside Ukraine – located in NATO countries like Poland and Romania – that are channeling extraordinary quantities of arms, ammunition and military equipment into the country.
Throughout the war, U.S. intelligence has proved adept at learning Russian military plans, but its track record on Putin’s intentions is more mixed.
Intelligence officials have said publicly that Putin’s war aims remain the same from the beginning of the war – which include the removal of Zelenskyy.
In response to recent setbacks, Putin could also consider some kind of additional military mobilization, according to U.S. officials.
Putin has so far been unwilling to trigger a full mobilization.
What Putin decides to do could depend on his assessment of his own strength at home, how quickly he thinks Ukraine can regroup and attempt another counteroffensive – and what he can do to deter, rather than encourage, further American support.
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