Joe Biden said the United States would not supply Ukraine with rockets that could reach Russia, in a bid to ease tensions with Moscow over the potential deployment of long-range missiles with a range of around 185 miles.
The White House has weighed requests from Ukraine – which is losing ground in the battle for Donbass – for multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) to offset Moscow’s increasingly effective use of artillery at long range, amid Russian warnings that it would cross a red line.
“We’re not going to send rocket systems to Ukraine that can hit Russia,” Biden told reporters Monday after returning to the White House after a weekend in Delaware.
The American-made MLRS comes in many different variants, which in turn use a variety of ammunition. The longest range can fire missiles up to 185 miles away, but others use rockets with shorter ranges of 20-40 miles.
The precise meaning of Biden’s remark on Monday was unclear, but it was consistent with other weekend briefings that the White House was willing to provide MLRS as long as it held back on the longer-range missiles.
It happened again on Monday. A senior US official said: “The MLRS is under consideration, but nothing is on the table with long-range strike capabilities.”
Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called Biden’s remarks “reasonable” and warned that had cities across his country been hit, Russian forces would have “striked at the center of these criminal decisions”.
Ukraine appears poised to lose the city of Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost town it once held in the Donbass region, amid a relentless Russian artillery barrage that destroyed large parts of a city that had 100,000 inhabitants before the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy acknowledged on Sunday evening that “all critical infrastructure” and “more than two-thirds of the city’s building stock” had been “completely destroyed”, as he called for “more modern weapons to to defend our land, to defend our people”.
Nick Reynolds, ground warfare specialist at the Rusi think tank, said: “The disparity in artillery capabilities is a major factor keeping Russian ground forces moving forward.”
Russian firepower was preventing Ukrainian forces from assembling for counterattacks, the analyst said, adding that the MLRS could help Kyiv by “disrupting all kinds of activity in enemy rear areas”.
Last week, Ukraine’s Defense Ministry released a video of what it said was a bombardment of its positions by Russian TOS-1A flamethrower rockets in the Donetsk region. “Ukraine is ready to fight back. To do this, we need a NATO-style MLRS. Immediately”, the the ministry’s Twitter feed said.
The M270 tracked MLRS and its wheeled equivalent, the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), have a range well beyond anything Ukraine can deploy at the moment. Their use could allow Kyiv to hit Russian targets from further away, although it could expose more of its hinterland to retaliation.
Ukraine started the war with artillery such as Soviet-standard howitzers with a range of about 10 miles, before the United States agreed to send 90 Soviet-standard artillery pieces. NATO M777 in Ukraine. Depending on the shells used, the M777s can have a range of up to 25 miles.
Other NATO members could follow the American example. Ukraine has also pressured the UK to provide some of its own M270s, with some sources complaining that Britain is dragging its feet. The British M270 has a range of 52 miles, although 44 of Army stocks are upgraded to 93 miles.
Last Friday, Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, said that the MLRS would allow the Ukrainians “to defend themselves against this very brutal Russian artillery, and that is where the world must go”. His remarks, a public acknowledgment of Ukraine’s request, fuel expectations that an announcement could come within days.
Briefings from the United States suggested an announcement could come later this week, after Monday’s Memorial Day holiday.