Putin Plays Down Threat Posed by Powerful U.S.-Supplied Missiles

One day after Ukraine used newly acquired, American-made missiles to launch a damaging attack on Russian air bases in occupied territories, President Vladimir V. Putin sought to play down the impact the weapons will have on the battlefield.

“It is another mistake by the United States,” the Russian leader said, adding that it will only prolong “Ukraine’s agony.”

Speaking with journalists at the end of his visit to China, Mr. Putin admitted that the delivery of the long-range missiles — known as ATACMs — would “create a new threat” and “cause harm” to Russia, but that the new weapons “cannot change the situation on the front lines” because Russia can fend off attacks by such missiles.

Dan Rice, the president of the American University in Kyiv and a military expert who has long lobbied for the U.S. to provide the munitions, ​​disputed Mr. Putin’s assessment.

“These are ballistic missiles,” Mr. Rice said. “He has no defense against them. Other than misinformation.”

“Any supply depot or command and control or large troop concentration within 100 miles of the front line should be worried,” he said.

Russian military bloggers loosely affiliated with the Kremlin noted the devastating impact of the first use of the missiles.

The Fighterbomber Telegram channel, which is believed to be run by Captain Ilya Tumanov of the Russian Army, called the strikes “one of the most serious blows” since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

However, military analysts also noted that Russia has adjusted to new Ukrainian strike capabilities in the past and would likely do so again.

The White House had long resisted providing the weapons to Kyiv out of concern that it would escalate the conflict with the Kremlin, a threat bolstered by Mr. Putin’s episodic threats to unleash tactical nuclear weapons.

Over the past 19 months, Russia has attacked Ukraine with nearly every conventional weapon in its arsenal, and Kyiv has dismissed concerns about escalation as it fights for its survival as a sovereign nation.

The Biden administration finally agreed to provide Ukraine with a version of the missile with a limited range of only 100 miles, and covertly delivered them in recent days. The weapons delivered so far have been the variety armed with cluster munitions that spread out to do maximum damage to exposed targets like aircraft on a runway.

Frederick B. Hodges, a retired lieutenant general and former top U.S. Army commander in Europe, said the addition of ATACMs — for Army Tactical Missile System, pronounced “attack-em” — to the Ukrainian arsenal will have both immediate and long-term impacts on the battlefield.

As the first strikes aimed at the air bases demonstrated, Ukraine will seek to inflict maximum damage to Russia’s fleet of planes and helicopters, Mr. Hodges said. That could force Russia to move those assets to airfields further away from the front, reducing their effectiveness against Ukrainian forces.

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, noted on Tuesday night that Russian helicopters operating close to the front line had been used to target mechanized Ukrainian forces deployed in Kyiv’s southern counteroffensive. “The relocation of aircraft to airfields further in the rear will likely impact the loitering time that Russian aviation will have to support operations,” the analysts said.

Ultimately, Mr. Hodges said, all new long-range strike capabilities are critical in helping sever the “land bridge” linking Russia to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. He said Tuesday’s strike “demonstrates the viability of long-range precision strike weapons to make Russian-occupied airfields and facilities untenable.”

While the Russian military has shown it can adapt to new Ukrainian weapons and tactics, military analysts noted that the adjustments have often come only after suffering initial losses from Ukrainian assaults.

But Tom Karako, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, based in Washington, said Ukraine would receive only a limited number of the guided missiles and would therefore need to use them as effectively as possible against high-value targets, such as ammunition depots and military airfields.

“If used well, you could have a really important impact,” Mr. Karako said. “But the number is finite. I don’t think it’s going to dramatically change the course of things on the ground, but it is going to improve them for the Ukrainians.”

Some Western and Ukrainian military analysts compared the moment to the arrival of multiple-rocket launchers known as HIMARS to the battlefield in the summer of 2022.

The HIMARS, which fire satellite-guided rockets with a range of around 50 miles, helped Ukrainian forces cut key supply lines for thousands of troops Moscow had stationed in the southern city of Kherson, on the west bank of the Dnipro River. Eventually, the Kremlin ordered its forces to withdraw completely from the western banks.

The first known use of the ATACMS coincided with Russian reports that Kyiv was stepping up amphibious assaults aimed at establishing positions on the eastern bank of the river, which is controlled by Russian forces.

“They launched a counteroffensive along the Kherson axis,” Mr. Putin said on Wednesday. “There is no result yet, but there are losses, just as in the Zaporizhzhia and other areas.”

The Ukrainian military declined to comment on the reports, but military analysts are watching the developments closely since a serious cross-river assault could open a new front in the war.

“Undoubtedly, this high-risk but high-reward amphibious operation, if successful, would bring Kyiv close to Crimea and allow it to bypass Russian fortifications in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast,” Konrad Muzyka, a defense analyst for Rochan Consulting, wrote in an analysis on Wednesday.

However, he said the limited satellite imagery and combat footage from the area made it impossible to confirm the claims being made by Russian military bloggers.

“We assess that there is a roughly even chance that Ukrainians will conduct a cross-river operation in the Kherson direction,” he wrote.

In a likely reflection of its own concern over the threat posed by Ukrainian forces on the river, the Kremlin has stepped up its assaults on Ukrainian towns and villages along the river, dropping dozens of powerful bombs in recent days that have injured and killed civilians.

In the most recent attack before dawn on Wednesday, Russian aircraft launched guided aerial bombs that hit strike three communities and killed two civilians, Ukrainian officials said.

Kherson was just one of nine regions targeted over the past day, Ukrainian officials said.

At least five people were killed and five others wounded when a Russian missile hit an apartment building in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia early Wednesday, the local authorities said. The strike was part of a larger attack in which six Russian missiles damaged transportation infrastructure and homes in Zaporizhzhia overnight, according to Yuri Malashko, the head of the regional military administration.

“People were sleeping peacefully,” Mr. Malashko said in a statement accompanied by photographs showing a gutted building with part of its facade collapsed.

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