Britain has become the first western country to provide Ukraine with the long-range Storm Shadow cruise missiles that Kyiv wants to boost its chances in a much-anticipated counteroffensive, prompting a threat from the Kremlin of a military response.
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 defence secretary, told MPs that the missiles – which cost more than £2m each – were “now going in, or are in the country itself”.
The gift of the missiles was supported by the US, Wallace added, although previously Washington had declined to give Ukraine long-range missiles of its own, fearing that the outcome could escalate hostilities in the 15-month war.
At least 23,000 civilians had been killed or injured, Wallace said. Russia had made “788 attacks on healthcare facilities, hospitals, clinics, medical centres”, and on many occasions killed civilians in missile strikes, he added.
“The use of Storm Shadow will allow Ukraine to push back Russian forces based within Ukrainian sovereign territory,” Wallace told MPs, adding: “Russia must recognise that their actions alone have led to such systems being provided.”
Speaking at a press briefing in Moscow, the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russia was taking a “rather negative” view of the UK’s move. “This will require an adequate response from our military, who … will make appropriate decisions,” he said.
Wallace did not say how many Storm Shadow missiles had been given to Ukraine, although it has been estimated the UK holds a stock 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).
Storm Shadow has a range of “in excess of 250km”, according to its manufacturer, the European arms group MBDA. That is significantly further than the high-precision US Himars rocket launchers currently used heavily by Ukraine, which rely on missiles with a range of 47 miles. Himars have become less effective as the Russian invaders have moved reserves of troops and equipment out of their range.
There have been concerns that the Storm Shadow missiles could be used to strike targets deep inside Russia’s internationally recognised borders. The White House has balked at supplying Ukraine with similar long-range ATACMS missiles, which can be fitted to the Himars systems.
Wallace said the US was “incredibly supportive” of the UK’s decision, and said ATACMS missiles were not as suitable as Storm Shadow, which is designed to be able to strike defensive positions below ground.
A US official said that “each country makes their own sovereign decisions” about what weapons to give to Ukraine, and stressed that the Biden administration appreciated the contributions made by “more than 50 countries, including the UK” in support of Kyiv in its effort to kick out the Russian invaders.
Ukrainian commanders on the ground have said Kyiv still lacks vital weapons needed for a large-scale campaign to succeed. These include long-range missiles. Without them, it is feared that deep-lying reserves could be used to snuff out any Ukrainian counteroffensive quickly if it looks likely to break through.
Earlier, Zelenskiy said in a television interview Ukraine needed more time before it could launch its much-anticipated counteroffensive, and was still waiting for key weapons to arrive.