Joe Biden has said the US will not supply Ukraine with rockets that can reach into Russia, in an attempt to ease tensions with Moscow over the potential deployment of long-range missiles with a range of about 185 miles.
The White House has been weighing up pleas from Ukraine – which is losing ground in the battle for Donbas – for multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) to offset Moscow’s increasingly effective use of long-range artillery, amid Russian warnings that doing so would cross a red line.
“We are not going to send to Ukraine rocket systems that can strike into Russia,” Biden told reporters on Monday after arriving back at the White House after a weekend in Delaware.
The US-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 to 40 miles.
The precise meaning of Biden’s remark on Monday was unclear, but it was consistent with other briefings from the weekend that the White House was willing to provide MLRS as long as it withheld the longest-range missiles.
That was repeated on Monday. One senior US official said: “MLRS is under consideration, but nothing is on the table with long-range strike capabilities.”
The former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev described Biden’s remarks as “reasonable” and warned that if his country’s cities had been struck, then Russian forces would “have struck at the centers of these criminal decisions”.
Ukraine appears close to losing the city of Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost city it had held in the Donbas region, amid a relentless Russian artillery barrage that has destroyed large parts of a city that had a prewar population of 100,000.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, acknowledged late on Sunday that “the entire critical infrastructure” and “more than two-thirds of the city’s housing stock” had been “completely destroyed”, as he asked for “more modern weapons to defend our land, to defend our people”.
Nick Reynolds, a land warfare specialist with the Rusi thinktank, said: “The disparity in artillery capability is a major factor allowing the Russian ground forces to continue pushing forwards.”
Russian firepower was preventing Ukraine’s forces from massing for counterattacks, the analyst said, adding that MLRS could help Kyiv by “disrupting all kinds of activity in enemy rear areas”.
Last week, Ukraine’s ministry of defense released a video of what it said was the shelling of its positions by Russian TOS-1A flamethrower rockets in the Donetsk area. “Ukraine is ready to strike back. To do this, we need Nato-style MLRS. Immediately,” the ministry’s Twitter feed said.
The M270 tracked MLRS, and its wheeled equivalent, the M142 high mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS), have a far greater range than anything Ukraine can deploy at the moment. Using them could allow Kyiv to hit at Russian targets from further back, although it could expose more of its hinterland to retaliation.
Ukraine began the war with artillery such as Soviet-standard howitzers with a range of about 10 miles, before the US agreed to send 90 M777 Nato-standard artillery pieces to Ukraine. Depending on the shells used, M777s can have a range of up to 25 miles.
Other Nato members may follow the US lead. Ukraine has also been pressing the UK to supply some of its own M270s, with some sources complaining that Britain has been dragging its feet. The British M270 has a range of 52 milesalthough 44 of the army’s stock are being upgraded to 93 miles.
Last Friday Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, said MLRS would enable the Ukrainians “to defend themselves against this very brutal Russian artillery, and that’s where the world needs to go”. His remarks about him, a public acknowledgment of Ukraine’s request, fueling expectations an announcement could come within days.
Briefings from the US have suggested an announcement could come later this week, after Monday’s Memorial Day holiday.