Inside Biden’s reversal on sending long-range missiles to Ukraine | ET REALITY

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From the early days of the war in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky told President Biden that he needed one weapon above all others: long-range missiles, known as ATACMS, that could hit Russian air bases and troops more than 100 miles behind the lines. .

For the better part of 18 months, Biden had an answer, both publicly and in his sometimes tense private meetings with Zelensky: No.

The weapons, he said, could cross one of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia’s “red lines,” a possibility the president had to take seriously as Putin episodically threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons.

After explosions at two air bases in Russian-controlled territory in southern and eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, it became clear that Biden had changed his mind — again. Amid the wreckage of the Russian helicopters, there was evidence that the bases had been attacked by US-supplied ATACMS (Army Tactical Missile Systems), which were Zelensky’s last big unfulfilled order.

The story of how that happened, as described by several administration officials, is more complex than a caricature circulating in Washington that Biden is overly cautious and says no until the pressure is insurmountable.

In this case there was a lot of pressure. Some came from members of Congress, including Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and former Army Ranger, who wrote to the White House that Ukraine needed weapons “to attack deep supply lines and Russian command and control centers.” Crow added that while systems already provided to Ukraine were being used “to devastating effect,” the Russians “have adapted to ensure key assets are out of reach.”

Zelensky also provided a boost at the NATO summit in Vilnius in July, when the Ukrainian leader made no secret of his anger that Biden and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany had blocked any clear declaration that Ukraine was on the path to NATO. membership.

With a touch of bitterness, he told reporters that “there is no decision” by Mr. Biden on the ATACMS issue, adding: “It is better not to raise the issue because there are expectations from the people, from the military, from everyone.” . .” It would be better, he said, “to do it first and then share information about how it happened.”

But White House officials insist it conducts a vigorous review process to make sure the weapons meet needs. In July, Biden aides said, they came to see what one called a “clear use case” for ATACMS. It was the one Mr. Crow had identified, using ATACMS to attack supply lines and air bases that Ukraine couldn’t reach. In a July 14 meeting in the office of Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, he and Jon Finer, his deputy, spoke to a small group of officials about developing options.

The study came at a time of division in the Biden administration. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken had long pushed for more weapons to be delivered to Ukrainians sooner. Otherwise, Blinken said, the United States seemed reluctant to provide aid and reactive. In public, he was more discreet, saying only that he was “leaning forward” on arming Ukraine.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III took the other side. The United States had a limited supply of ATACM, and giving them to the Ukrainians, who were depleting ammunition at a much faster rate than necessary, would leave the United States and its allies vulnerable. Preparedness isn’t just a word, Austin argued, it’s a necessity.

There was also a budget issue. The White House was exhausting more than $40 billion that Congress had appropriated for military aid to Ukraine, and a growing number of Republicans opposed more spending. ATACMS were not cheap: about $1.5 million each.

In September, the group Sullivan and Finer organized returned with an analysis and a proposal. Climbing no longer seemed like a major problem, they concluded. Britain had begun supplying its Storm Shadow missiles in June, with ranges close to ATACMS, and Putin barely reacted.

The helicopters and other aircraft that the Russians were lining up in occupied territory, usually at airports, were targets. In the meetings, Mr. Austin agreed because the version of ATACMS being discussed had a range of only 100 miles and was armed with spread-out cluster munitions to cause maximum damage to unprotected targets such as aircraft.

Cluster munitions are banned by an international convention because “bugs” left on the ground can hurt civilians, often children, who pick them up. The United States has never ratified the convention, but would be highly unlikely to use weapons. In July, the United States sent other types of cluster munitions to Ukraine, drawing widespread condemnation.

The ATACMS proposal was accepted by other administration officials and Biden agreed. He told Zelensky when they met in Washington last month, but they agreed not to announce the decision.

It was leaked, but the timing of the shipments remained secret, as part of an effort to catch the Russians by surprise before they had time to move their helicopters out of reach. Which is what seems to have happened on Tuesday.

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