Biden wrongly restricts Ukraine’s option to conduct counter-fires

Somewhere within the E Ring of the Pentagon, a Department of Defense (DOD) voice was able to break through White House and State Department objections and convince President Biden that Ukraine needs additional artillery capability — the Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS).

The president walked back his May 30 announcement that the U.S. would not send MLRS to Ukraine. In a New York Times op-ed, he said the U.S. would provide “weapons that will enable them to more precisely strike key targets on the battlefield in Ukraine.” While this provides Ukraine much-needed additional firepower to defend itself, lethal fires continue to rain down upon Ukraine from Russian territory. They are fired from sanctuary, with impunity.

The White House initially bent, but did not break, against renewed Russian threats — a warning from former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that if his country’s cities had been struck, then Russian forces would “have struck at the centers of these criminal decisions,” along with the testing of their hypersonic missile.

The White House reportedly still has reservations about the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).  This weapon system can fire a six-pack of rockets, or a single missile, up to 185 miles, and could strike targets beyond its border; however, it’s expected that Ukraine will be provided with the shorter-range rockets, with a range of about 40 miles. Yuri Sack, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, assured the U.S. that it won’t use the new system to strike inside Russia, stating, “Ukraine has no intention to use them other than for defense of our territories and for the de-occupation of our territories.”

Russia doesn’t want a level playing field, and HIMARS would do just that. Russian artillery is literally killing Ukraine; look no further than the devastation it has done to Kyiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv and now Severodonetsk. These aren’t military targets; they are homes, schools, hospitals, power plants and places of worship. After nearly 100 days of Russian troops’ complete disregard for humanity, huge losses and tactical failures, Moscow continues to stumble forward — now in the eastern Donbas region and the south. Moscow’s long-range artillery, largely unchecked, is making that advance possible.

Russia’s ground forces cannot compete against Ukraine without their artillery dominance. Ukraine is winning the close fight — its Defense Ministry reports as many as 30,700 Russian soldiers have been killed in action and that Russia has lost 1,361 tanks, 3,343 armored personnel carriers, 659 artillery pieces, 207 Multiple Rocket Launchers, 208 aircraft and 175 helicopters. To date, though, Ukraine’s fighters have no solution to counter the cross-border artillery strikes. As a result, they are slowly losing terrain — and experienced combat veterans. Officials in eastern Ukraine report the Russian shelling of Severodonetsk has been so intense that it has not been possible to assess casualties and damage. Ukrainians are putting up a valiant effort, but they can’t win if they can’t target the artillery systems that are killing them — Mariupol proved that.

For Ukraine to survive, there can be no sanctuary afforded to Russian artillery. If Russia is firing into Ukraine, it must be subject to counter-fires, regardless of its location. And yes, that means Russia and Belarus. NATO and the U.S. are fully committed and should be beyond concern about escalation. It is time for Brussels and Washington to notify Moscow that any weapon system that fires into Ukraine, regardless of its location, will be subject to immediate counter-fires by all means available to Ukraine. HIMARS would provide that capability. Denying Ukraine the ability to conduct counter-fires — a defensive action — is unconscionable.

The West cannot expect Ukraine to continue to absorb casualties and the destruction of infrastructure. President Volodymyr Zelensky has acknowledged that 50-100 soldiers are being killed daily, defending Ukraine’s eastern regions. In mid-April, Zelensky said that 2,500-3,000 Ukrainian troops had been killed, and up to 10,000 had been injured. Russian artillery is the principal instrument of their deaths. HIMARS would provide a fairer fight, in the same way that the Javelin and Switchback drones have countered Russian armor.

President Biden cannot repeat President Lyndon Johnson’s mistake during the Vietnam War — watching the North Vietnamese march soldiers and equipment down the Ho Chi Min trail in Laos and Cambodia and doing nothing about it until they entered South Vietnam. Providing HIMARS to Ukraine is the right decision, but telling Zelensky their use is restricted to “key targets on the battlefield in Ukraine” keeps his soldiers and civilians in the kill zone with no means to retaliate. The option to conduct counter-fires cannot be restricted.

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.

Tags Biden Dmitry Medvedev High Mobility Artillery Rocket System Russian artillery Russian invasion of Ukraine Ukraine crisis

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