Britain has become the first western country to supply Ukraine with long-range Storm Shadow cruise missiles that Kyiv wants to boost its chances of an expected counter-offensive, prompting a threat from the Kremlin to respond to the military.
Hours after Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said he needed more western weapons to be confident of a victory this summer, Ben Wallace, the UK’s defense secretary, told MPs that the missiles – which cost more than £2m each – “now go in. , or are in the country itself”.
The gift of missiles was supported by the US, Wallace added, even though Washington had previously refused to give its own long-range missiles to Ukraine, fearing that the result could escalate the fighting in the 15-month war.
Reflecting such concerns, the minister said the decision was “a calibrated and proportionate response” to Russia’s invasion, and in particular Moscow’s repeated targeting of civilians in Ukraine.
At least 23,000 civilians were killed or wounded, Wallace said. Russia carried out “788 attacks on health care facilities, hospitals, clinics, medical centers”, and on several occasions killed civilians in missile strikes, he added.
“Using Storm Shadow will allow Ukraine to push Russian forces based inside Ukraine’s sovereign territory,” Wallace told MPs, adding: “Russia must recognize that their actions alone brings such systems into being.”
Speaking at a press briefing in Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia took a “negative” view of the UK’s move. “This requires an adequate response from our military, who … will make appropriate decisions,” he said.
Wallace did not say how many Storm Shadow missiles Ukraine has supplied, although it is estimated that the UK has a stockpile of between 700 and 1,000. Working with four other countries, the UK issued a tender to buy more long-range “missiles or rockets with a range of 100-300km” (62 to 186 miles).
The Storm Shadow has a range of “more than 250km”, according to its manufacturer, the European arms group MBDA. That’s more than the high-precision US Himars rocket launchers currently in heavy use in Ukraine, which rely on missiles with a range of 47 miles. The Himars became less effective as the Russian invaders moved reserves of troops and equipment away from them.
There are concerns that the Storm Shadow missiles could be used to attack targets deep inside Russia’s internationally recognized borders. The White House has refused to supply Ukraine with similar long-range ATACMS missiles, which could be fitted with Himars systems.
Wallace said the US was “incredibly supportive” of the UK’s decision, and said the ATACMS missiles were not as suitable as the Storm Shadow, which was designed to be able to attack underground defense positions. .
A US official said that “each country makes their own sovereign decisions” about what weapons to provide to Ukraine, and emphasized that the Biden administration appreciates the contributions made by “more than 50 countries, including the UK” to support Kyiv in its effort. to expel the Russian invaders.
Ukrainian commanders on the ground say Kyiv still lacks the vital weapons needed for a major campaign to succeed. Among them are long-range missiles. Without them, it is feared that the deep reserves could be used to quickly kill any Ukrainian counter-offensive if it is likely to break through.
Earlier, Zelenskiy said in a television interview that Ukraine needed more time before it could launch the expected counteroffensive, and was still waiting for the main weapons to arrive.
The president said the newly formed brigades are ready to attack, but risk taking more casualties if they do so now. “We can continue and be successful. But we are going to lose a lot of people. I don’t think that’s acceptable,” he said. “That’s why we have to wait. We still need a little more time. “
His comments are the clearest sign yet that a military push into Ukraine, on which the outcome of the war could depend, is unlikely to happen in the coming weeks. Long-range attacks on Russia’s main military sites in Crimea and elsewhere deep in occupied territory are likely a prelude to any frontline attack.
Justin Bronk, an aviation analyst at the Rusi thinktank, described the Storm Shadow as “an expensive weapon designed for strategic targets such as command centers, logistics hubs or other high-value fixed sites”.
Experts say the Storm Shadow could be used to attack targets such as the Dzhankoi rail and logistics hub in northern Crimea, as well as the naval base in Sevastopol and the Saky airfield. Making it unavailable would make it difficult for Russia to push back against any Ukrainian attack.
Ukrainian leaders have publicly said they will not use long-range missiles inside Russia, although leaked Pentagon papers report, based on electronic eavesdropping, that Zelenskiy privately complained to his top commander that Ukraine “does not have long-range missiles capable of reaching the deployments of Russian troops. in Russia”.
Ukraine is gradually amassing western tanks and armored vehicles as it seeks to build a counterattack force of 12 brigades aimed at breaching Russian lines and making it possible for Kyiv to push the invaders out of the country.
Bronk said that although standard NATO weapons, the Storm Shadows can be mounted under standard Soviet jets used by the Ukrainian air force, and, like any cruise missile, can be programmed. from the ground.
Ukraine’s small surviving air force flies about 12 or so missions a day, its pilots often flying a few meters above the ground to avoid detection.
British sources said the provision of the Storm Shadow missiles was in line with the UK’s signature of the voluntary missile technology control regime, which is intended to limit the proliferation of cruise missiles.
Although the missiles are considered a category 1 weapon, and therefore there is a “strong presumption” that they will not be exported to other countries, officials point to the fact that an exception can be made that “on rare occasions” where there is a demonstrable. must.