(KYIV, Ukraine) — Ukraine has used U.S.-supplied ATAMCS long-range missiles for the first time in its war against Russia, hitting two Russian airbases in occupied Ukrainian territory in strikes that Ukraine and some Russian sources said had caused significant damage.
The missiles hit a Russian military airfield in Berdyansk in southern Ukraine and another in Lugansk in the northeast on Tuesday, according to both Russian and Ukrainian officials.
Ukraine’s General Staff said the attacks had destroyed nine helicopters, as well as an ammunition dump, air defense system and also damaged the airfield’s runways. Russian officials did not provide details on the scale of the damage, but one prominent Russian pro-war blogger wrote the strikes were perhaps the most serious against Russian military aviation since the start of the invasion.
The Biden administration has quietly delivered the ATACMS to Ukraine after months of resisting Kyiv’s requests. During Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington, D.C., last month, U.S. officials told reporters a small number would be sent but no formal announcement was made.
Zelenskyy confirmed ATACMS had been used in Tuesday’s strikes in his evening address and thanked the U.S.
“And today I am especially grateful to the United States. Our agreements with President Biden are being implemented. And they are being implemented very accurately — ATACMS have proven themselves,” Zelenskyy said.
The ATACMS, or Army Tactical Missile Systems, come in several varieties with ranges from 100 to 190 miles. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday the version given to Ukraine had roughly 100 miles, but that was still more than twice as far as the munitions the U.S. has previously sent.
Ukraine had argued for months that it needed the ATACMS to assist its counteroffensive by allowing it to target Russia’s airbases, supply lines and ammunition depots far behind Russia’s lines and undercut Russia’s advantages in air superiority and firepower.
The strikes on Tuesday appeared to back up Ukraine’s requests for the missiles, hitting bases that house Russian attack helicopters that have played an important role in blunting Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Russia has used the helicopters, which are able to fly beyond the range of Ukraine’s air defenses, to strike Ukraine’s armor as it tries to advance.
Video circulating online, and that two Ukrainian government sources confirmed as from the Berdyansk airfield following the strikes, appeared to show a number of helicopters burning and large fires.
Besides the immediate destruction of some of those helicopters, Tuesday’s strikes may also now force Russia to base them further back from the front line out of concern they could be targeted.
The Biden administration had been reluctant to supply the ATACMS because of concerns that providing longer-range weapons might provoke Russia into a wider conflict and that the U.S. stocks of the missiles were insufficient to share without undercutting its own ability to defend itself. The administration’s resistance followed a similar pattern throughout the war that has seen it eventually relent after months of Ukrainian lobbying to provide key weapons, first with HIMARS missile artillery and more recently F-16 fighter jets.
The concern about escalation from Russia has faded over the months, in particular after Britain and France provided their own long-range cruise missiles to Ukraine.
Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, Valeriy Zaluzhniy, on Tuesday evening published a video showing the ATACMS launch with the caption: “Thank you to our partners. Together to victory.”
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