While the UK and other countries have so far equipped Volodymyr Zelensky’s troops with Javelin and Stinger missiles – shorter range and designed for taking out surface vehicles – the armed forces have struggled to hold off Russian naval vessels, which now dominate Ukraine’s waters on the black sea. The Ukrainian President has approached world leaders with requests for specific weaponry to help target the Russian attack.
Mr Zelensky was previously denied a hundred Marder tanks from Germany,
which he had asked for as a stop-gap while a shipment of refurbished tanks was being prepared. Germany claimed it would not be able to defend itself if it did.
However, Chancellor Olaf Scholz later capitulated following a meeting with US officials and agreed to send 50 Gerhard tanks to Ukraine, according to reports.
The Kyiv Independent quoted the chief executive of the arms firm supplying the Marder tanks last week, who said they were ready to ship but awaiting a decision from the German Government.
Now, US officials and congressional sources say they are considering arming Ukraine with Harpoon missiles, manufactured by Boeing, and Naval Strike Missile, made by Kongsberg and Raytheon Technologies – both anti-ship missiles.
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Both were said to be in active consideration for either direct shipment to Ukraine, or through a transfer from a European ally which has the missiles already.
A fleet of Russian ships in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov have caused significant problems for Ukraine, blockading its key goods ports and hitting land targets from distance.
According to the UK Defence Ministry, there are around twenty Russian Navy vessels, including submarines, in the Black Sea operational zone.
The Russian sea dominance has not been unopposed, however: in a crushing blow for Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian forces were able to sink the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, the Moskva on April 14.
The White House is said to be currently working out how to place the advanced anti-ship missiles in Ukrainian hands without worsening the conflict.
US officials cited roadblocks including the lengthy training needed to operate the weapons, the maintenance they require – and that the weapons could be captured by Russian forces.
In addition, the US fears that improving the fire power against Russian forces may only escalate the conflict.
Bryan Clark, a naval expert at the Hudson Institute, said as few as a dozen Harpoon missiles with ranges more than 100km would be enough to call off the Russian blockade. Harpoons can reach up to 300km.
He said: “If Putin persists, Ukraine could take out the largest Russian ships, since they have nowhere to hide in the Black Sea.”
US officials hope a country “well-stocked” with the missiles will commit to sending them to Ukraine, so that other known willing countries may follow.
But one official said that no one nation wants to be the first or only to do so, fearing reprisals from Russia.
The sources said Naval Strike Missiles – which have a range of 250km – were less logistically difficult than Harpoons, as they can be operated better from ground launchers than Harpoons, something which NATO allies could loan Ukraine.
Despite the UK’s historical naval dominance, it is unlikely to be able to help; according to independent specialist publication Navy Lookout, the Royal Navy only carries a “small stock” of “obsolete US-made Harpoons” that were due to leave service in 2018.