Zelenskyy Visits Pentagon in Push for Breakthrough on Long-Range Weapons

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy renewed his push for long-range missiles and F-16 aircraft in a whistle-stop trip to Washington D.C. on Sept. 21.

“We had great dialogue,” Zelenskyy told reporters on Capitol Hill. “We spoke about so many details.”

But unlike his trip last December, which culminated in a U.S. pledge to send a prized Patriot air defense system and JDAM guided bombs to Ukraine, Zelenskyy’s latest visit has not been not greeted with a major new arms commitment from President Joe Biden. Instead, the administration focused on bolstering Kyiv’s air defense and artillery stockpiles in a $325 million package.

After an hourlong meeting with Senators, the upper chamber’s Majority Leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), summarized Zelenskyy’s clear message to Congress, quoting the Ukrainian leader: “If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war.”

Other lawmakers said the top priorities on the Ukrainian president’s list included the U.S.’s Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), a surface-to-surface missile with the range to strike logistics and other targets behind the Russians’ front lines.

Ukraine has been using French and British air-launched cruise missiles for long-range strikes. But those supplies are shrinking.

Gen. Stéphane Mille, the head of the French Air and Space Force, told a small group of reporters on Sept. 18 that his country would not be able to send more SCALP cruise missiles to Ukraine because they were needed for the French air force.

“There is no option in the short future to give them more,” Mille said. Supplies of the British Storm Shadow are also limited.

ATACMS can be fired from a mobile launcher with a range of around 100 and 190 miles depending on the variant. Some of the models carry cluster munitions. 

Zelenskyy did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about what more military aid Ukraine needed from the U.S. as he walked up the steps to the Pentagon before meetings with Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley. The Ukrainian leader also placed a bouquet of sunflowers, irises, and other flowers down as he paid his respects at the Pentagon’s 9/11 Memorial after the playing of the Ukrainian and American national anthems.

“We’re going to continue to work very hard with Ukraine and our international allies and partners to ensure they have what they need to be successful on the battlefield,” Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder told reporters.

Ryder said the purpose of the visit was to provide Zelenskyy with an “update” on U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. Ryder said the Pentagon expects “several” Ukrainian pilots to arrive in the U.S. “soon” for English-language courses before transitioning to previously announced F-16 training being conducted by the Arizona Air National Guard.

“There was also an opportunity to discuss Ukraine’s longer-term capability requirements and how to support that in the future in terms of deterring Russian aggression,” Ryder said of Zelenskyy’s conversation with Austin.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III greets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Pentagon, Sept. 21, 2023. DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley

After he visited the Pentagon, Zelenskyy took his case straight to Biden for a meeting at the White House. 

But after meeting with Zelenskyy, Biden unveiled the latest aid package that he said focused on “more artillery, more ammunition, more anti-tank weapons” and “strengthening Ukraine’s air defense capabilities to protect the critical infrastructure that provides heat and light during the coldest and darkest days of the year.”

The package includes AIM-9M missiles for ground-based air defense, more Avenger air defense systems, and counter-drone machine guns to help blunt Russia’s continued missile and drone attacks. But the U.S. declined to provide any ATACMS, instead opting for more GMLRS rockets, which are shorter-range weapons with a range of around 40 miles.

“We’re committed to help Ukraine build a force capable of ensuring Ukraine’s long-term security, capable of deterring future threats against sovereignty, territorial integrity, and freedom,” Biden told Zelenskyy during their meeting.

If the Biden administration eventually opts to give Ukraine ATACMS, Germany may follow with its Taurus air-launched cruise missile.

Some Senators said they were frustrated with the administration’s decision not to approve ATACMS after hearing from Zelenskyy.

“Does the Biden administration want Ukraine to win or not?” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said in a statement.

If ATACMS missiles are provided to Ukraine, the Army plans to replace them with more modern PrSM precision strike missiles, Army acquisition chief Doug Bush told reporters earlier this week.

A concern in some circles of Washington has been the accountability for U.S. weapons, especially after Defense Minister Oleksii Resnikov resigned following allegations of misuse of Ukrainian taxpayer funds for military purchases. Resnikov himself was not accused of any wrongdoing.

U.S. officials note that U.S.-made weapons carry stipulations that they are not to be used to strike Russian territory, by which Ukraine has abided.

“He talked about accountability,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told reporters after Zelenskyy’s meeting with Senators. “They talked about how they take it seriously, and they are working hand in hand with the United States.”