Comment: Providing missiles to Ukraine best and only option

Britain’s offer of long-range missiles seems to have eased the reluctance of other Western nations.

By Therese Raphael / Bloomberg Opinion

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, and the barbarism of Vladimir Putin’s forces grows more ghastly, taboos about which weapons systems should be given Ukraine for its defense have gradually broken down. It finally seems to be dawning on Western powers that the real escalation risk comes from Ukraine having insufficient means to defend itself.

That logic has informed Britain’s stance from the start of the war and continues. Earlier this year, the United Kingdom became the first country to send battle tanks to Ukraine. Last week, Britain announced it had dispensed with another taboo, sending long-range missiles to Ukraine.

Volodomyr Zelenskiy tweeted his thanks to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak after the announcement last week, but the hug on Monday when they met in person — their encounter at Chequers was where Winston Churchill made many wartime speeches — probably said it best. There were also some sweeteners to last week’s announcement. To support Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Sunak further promised long-range attack drones and training for Ukrainian fighter pilots as Britain looks to lead a coalition to supply Ukraine with the F-16 fighter jets.

Why exactly it has fallen to Britain to play this role owes to a number of factors, from the legacy of Britain’s World War II role to its efforts to forge a new international role post-Brexit to the convictions of individual figures. Unlike within the U.S. and some other NATO allies, U.K. support for arming Ukraine cuts across political lines. It’s not that Britons dismiss the escalation fears mooted mainly by some Republicans in the U.S. or written all over Germany’s slow-walking of military aid before now; but the U.K. sees a much bigger risk in allowing Putin a victory he can then use to build on.

“The front lines of Putin’s war of aggression may be in Ukraine but the fault lines stretch all over the world. It is in all our interest to ensure Ukraine succeeds and Putin’s barbarism is not rewarded,” said Sunak on Monday, and it’s hard to find many in Britain who would prefer forcing Ukraine into a negotiated settlement instead.

Success in the counteroffensive and longer war will require other countries to follow the U.K. lead. The provision of Storm Shadow missiles has the potential to shape both the military and political landscape, not unlike the role played by U.S.-supplied HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) in helping Ukraine retake swaths of territory last autumn. HIMARS enabled Ukrainian forces to take out logistics hubs, communication nodes and other high-value targets.

While those weapons continue to be vital for Ukraine, their range (a maximum of 50 miles) is not sufficient for Ukraine to support a major counteroffensive. They have also been subject to electronic jamming from Russia. Long-range missiles provide a whole other level of capability. The Storm Shadow missiles have triple the range of HIMARS, giving Ukrainians the potential to strike far behind the front line, further disrupting Russia’s already horrendous logistics problems.

Ukraine lobbied hard for the slightly longer-range U.S.-made ATACMS, but in many ways the Storm Shadow (jointly developed by the U.K. and France) are a better choice for its pinpoint accuracy. It has a two-stage “Broach” warhead; the initial charge can penetrate concrete or hard earth, clearing the way for the inner warhead to hit a well-protected target. University of Oslo missile expert Fabian Hoffman tweets a striking video of a similarly designed Taurus cruise missile.

Of course, the military impact of a few long-range missiles shouldn’t be overstated, notes King’s College London military historian Simon Anglim. At $2.5 million each, Ukrainian forces are likely to save them only for important targets. The U.K. gift also comes with some limitations on usage. Hitting supply lines within Russia itself would be tempting for any Ukrainian commander, but that worries the U.S. and other allies. Zelenskiy assured German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin that Ukraine would only use its capabilities within its own sovereign territory, which also seems to be Britain’s stipulation.

Still, the missiles put Crimea in scope and the famous Kerch bridge linking it to Russia, with all its symbolic and practical importance to Putin. The Kremlin’s puppet leader in Crimea — Georgiy Muradov — was so scathing about the gift that he threatened the U.K. will be turned “into a devastated territory” for its decision. It also allows Ukraine to target command posts and supply depots into Donetsk and Luhansk, the eastern territories that Putin invaded and illegally annexed. That seems to be what happened over the weekend in a strike 80 miles behind the front line in Luhansk City, hitting a depot used to store military equipment and rest soldiers. Russia naturally claimed it was a civilian target.

The Storm Shadow’s real significance is as much political as military. Just as the decision to donate a small number of Challenger 2 tanks spurred Germany to “release the Leopards,” we should hope that Britain has paved the way for other countries with similar long-range missiles in their arsenal to make donations, while further advancing talks on the provision of F-16s, which would ensure Ukraine’s longer-term defense. Withholding these tools for Ukraine’s defense is the ultimate false economy.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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