Amid renewed military support, Biden continues to deny Ukraine potent ATACMS missile system

At a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymryr Zelensky, Biden indicated there were limits to U.S. military support.

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During Wednesday’s demonstration of solidarity between President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, there was one notable moment of discord concerning a weapons system the U.S. has been reluctant to send to Kyiv.

Olha Koshelenko, a Ukrainian reporter, made the observation that when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, the U.S. refused to provide Kyiv with Patriot air defense batteries because this would qualify as an unnecessary escalation in security assistance. Yet on Wednesday, Biden announced that these missiles, among the most powerful in America's arsenal, would indeed be sent to Ukraine to shield its skies after a months-long Russian bombing campaign that had targeted civilian critical infrastructure. Why, asked Koshelenko, if the White House was moving the goalposts on Patriots could it not also do so with respect to long-range artillery missiles known at ATACMS?

To date, the U.S. has said it will not directly provide Ukraine with these missiles, which have a range of 190 miles and could easily hit Russian military positions far beyond enemy lines, including in occupied Crimea. The administration has offered various excuses for their refusal. In July, national security adviser Jake Sullivan implied that the delivery of the weapons could lead the world “down a road to World War III.” In October, the Pentagon declared that Ukraine didn’t need ATACMS for its current military purposes. The Wall Street Journal even reported on Dec. 5 that U.S.-provided HIMARS were technically disabled from firing ATACMS to deter third parties from sending them to Ukraine, a seeming redundancy since any foreign nation that did so would require U.S. consent, per an end-user agreement concerning ATACMS.

Joe Biden
President Biden listens at his joint press conference with President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday night. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Zelensky's response to Koshelenko’s question on Wednesday, which Biden anticipated, was succinct: “I agree,” he said, to laughter among the press corps.

The American president sang a slightly different tune.

“Why don’t we just give Ukraine everything there is to give?” Biden said, not mentioning ATACMS by name. “For two reasons: One, there is an entire alliance that is critical to stay with Ukraine. And the idea that we would give Ukraine material that is fundamentally different from what is already going there would have the prospect of breaking up NATO and breaking up the European Union.” He then elaborated that he's spent “hundreds of hours” trying to keep allies united by bartering over their own military aid packages. The U.S. has, for instance, promised to send Abrams tanks (something else Ukraine wants) to Poland so that Warsaw could send their Soviet-era T-72 tanks to Ukraine.

Biden’s explanation suggests that, despite what he said earlier at the presser in response to Yahoo News’ question about Western unity toward Ukraine, there are indeed cracks in the consensus, at least when it comes to lethal hardware.

It is no secret that Germany, under the leadership of Chancellor Olaf Scholz, has been tentative and halting in its commitment that Ukraine win the war on its own terms. Germany has recently overtaken the U.K. to become the second-largest contributor of foreign military aid to Ukraine, a marked about-face from the beginning of the war, when German Finance Minister Christian Lindner reportedly told Andriy Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, that there was no point supplying weapons to Kyiv as the country would collapse within hours.

Nevertheless, as one European diplomat told Yahoo News last week, Scholz remains "Doktor Nein" — “Doctor No” — in his reluctance to escalate further with the Russians, diplomatically, economically (via sanctions) and militarily. The German leader has stated that he hopes Europe can revert to a “status quo ante bellum” with Russia, a “peace order,” and answer “all questions of common security” once the war is over, which Scholz certainly seems impatient for it to be. Biden, by contrast, noted that Putin shows no signs of wanting to even discuss a resolution to a war he started.

Volodymyr Zelensky
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Could ATACMS be a sticking point with Berlin and other European capitals? Maybe. Could blaming a wobbly NATO and EU community also be a convenient excuse for Biden to avoid his own undesired confrontation with the Kremlin? Quite possibly.

Patriots, on the other hand, have become an easier sell, thanks to Putin's terror from above. They are, as Biden emphasized, an explicitly defensive platform, meant to save civilian lives.

The same European diplomat cited above also told Yahoo News that bolstering Ukraine's air defenses with advanced systems was now deemed less provocative not only because it would help keep the Ukrainian power grid and water supplies online during what is bound to be a very cold winter. Also, because Western embassies have reopened in Kyiv following that city’s liberation in April, Patriots are now not only saving Ukrainian lives but also the lives of people from other nations, including American and European diplomats and their support staff.

This does suggest, however, that U.S. willingness to creep up the security assistance ladder depends on Putin’s willingness to become more brutal in his methods. Valeriy Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s commander in chief, certainly thinks the Russian dictator will make another play to sack Kyiv, as he recently told the Economist. If that were to happen, it would jeopardize the lives of millions of Ukrainian civilians, including those formerly displaced by the first attempted conquest.

In the other words, depending on what Putin does next, the Ukrainian media and their president may ultimately be pleasantly surprised by Washington.