By Alex Marquardt
In an effort to overcome Biden administration resistance to providing it with a new set of powerful, long-range rocket systems, the Ukrainian government is now offering the US full and ongoing visibility into their list of intended Russian targets, multiple officials familiar with the discussions tell CNN.
The remarkable transparency essentially gives the US veto power over Ukrainian targeting of Russia and is meant to convince the administration that providing the critical weapons would not lead to strikes inside Russian territory, which the US fears would escalate the war and draw it directly into a conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At issue are the Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, surface-to-surface missiles that can fly around 200 miles (300 kilometers), about four times the distance of the rockets used by the HIMARS mobile systems the US began sending to Ukraine four months ago.
Despite Ukraine’s proposal, the Biden administration still has not approved the new long-range ATACMS weapons, and argues that Ukraine is doing well with the HIMARS systems it currently has. In fact on Wednesday the administration announced funding for 18 more HIMARS for Ukraine, bringing the total to over 30 US systems.
There are also concerns inside the administration that providing the longer-range ATACMS weapons would cross a red line in the eyes of Moscow, which would see the US becoming “a direct party to the conflict.”
But that red line is becoming murkier with Friday’s annexation of four Ukraine territories by Russia. The US has stated that it will support the use of western weapons inside those zones even if Russia now considers it part of its official territory.
Still, the idea of taking a more active role in discussions over Ukrainian targeting raises American fears of being seen as more involved than it would like.
Striking deeper into Crimea
Ukrainian officials have kept the longer-range ATACMS at the top of their wish list, saying they are ready to be as “open as needed” to assuage American concerns and have already listed for the US precisely what they intend to go after.
“We essentially described exactly what specific targets we need to hit on our territory which are not reachable with what we have now,” said a senior Ukrainian official. “The categories of targets are clear and do not change.”
Among them would be more distant Russian logistical lines, air defense and bases, as well as ammunition depots in Ukraine’s east and south, including Crimea, which have become a regular target of the current US-provided rocket systems whose munitions have a maximum range of around 50 miles (80 kilometers).
The new rockets would also allow Ukraine to strike deeper into Crimea to target the launching points of Russia’s Iranian drones, something it cannot currently do, according to an American source familiar with the country’s requests.
In pressing the Americans for the longer-range rockets, Ukrainian officials have also dismissed concerns that they would strike Russian territory, arguing they have not done so with the HIMARS systems despite having the range to in some cases.
“We gave assurances that we will not do it [with the HIMARS] and we did not,” the Ukrainian official said. “I think the problem is for the US to get over the psychological threshold and approve the [ATACMS] capability.”
While the Biden administration has not ruled out sending the ATACAMS eventually, for now they are “low reward and high risk,” according to an official familiar with the discussions.
Winning with what it has
After much lobbying and discussion, Ukraine has made effective use of the HIMARS systems it began receiving in May, particularly in its recent counteroffensive in the east.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin made specific mention of the HIMARS systems in discussing Ukraine’s recent battlefield success in the Kherson region of the country during an exclusive interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that aired Sunday on “Fareed Zakaria GPS.”
Austin said Ukrainian forces have used “technology like HIMARS” and employed it in the “right way” to “conduct attacks on things like logistical stores and command and control, that’s taking away — taken away significant capability from the Russians.”
US officials have argued the current precision HIMARS munitions, called GMLRS, offer plenty of firepower and range for Ukraine’s current needs with the ability to strike the vast majority of Russian targets.
“We believe that we’re providing the Ukrainians with the range of capabilities that are commensurate with the fight that they’re executing based on the requirements that they’ve identified for us,” the Pentagon’s Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Sasha Baker said Friday. “We really believe that the most critical requirements for Ukraine right now is the GMLRS munition that can reach most of the targets that they have identified within Ukrainian territory,” said Baker.
Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian land and Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling has done little to deter western support for Ukraine’s attacks against them to re-claim territory and many officials point to Ukraine’s repeated strikes in Crimea — taken by Russia in 2014 — as evidence that Russia’s threats are bluster.
“Ukraine has the absolute right to defend itself throughout its territory, including to take back the territory that has been illegally seized in one way or another by Russia,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday in response to a question from CNN.
“Because there is no change at all in the territory that is being annexed by the Russians as a matter for us or for the Ukrainians, the Ukrainians will continue to do what they need to do to get back the land that has been taken from them. We will continue to support them in that effort.”
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CNN’s Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.