They Didn’t Know The Ukrainians Had Aimed Four ATACMS Rockets At Them.

Potentially more than 100 Russians died as the ATACMS struck near Kuban in eastern Ukraine.

David Axe


May 2, 2024


Kuban, a settlement in Luhansk Oblast in eastern Ukraine, is 60 miles from the front line of Russia’s 27-month wider war on Ukraine. Normally well beyond the range of most of Ukraine’s anti-personnel weapons, it had been fairly safe for its Russian occupiers.

This helps to explain why, on or just before Wednesday, potentially hundreds of Russian troops gathered out in the open in a field near Kuban—apparently for training.

The problem, for the Russians, is the Army Tactical Missile System: an American-made precision-guided ballistic missile that, depending on the model, ranges as far as 190 miles and scatters at least hundreds—at most, nearly a thousand—grenade-size submunitions.

As the Russians milled about in broad daylight on that field outside Kuban, and a Ukrainian drone observed from high overhead, four of the two-ton ATACMS streaked down. One failed to explode. The other three popped open and scattered their lethal submunitions. Each rocket turned an area as wide as 2.5 acres into a nearly inescapable kill zone.

One of the ATACMS burst directly overhead a crowd of approximately 116 unprotected Russians. All of the Russians may have died in the rain of submunitions, according to the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.

The Wednesday strike may have been one of the bloodiest of the wider war. And it’s indicative of poor planning on the part of Russian commanders. They must have known such a strike had recently become possible—or even likely. Acquiring ATACMS from the United States, and then aiming them at the Russian army’s vulnerable rear area, has been one of Ukraine’s top military priorities in recent months.

The United States has belatedly obliged repeated Ukrainian requests for the powerful rockets.

Shortly before the U.S. Congress finally overcame resistance from a small number of Russia-friendly Republican lawmakers and approved $61 billion in fresh U.S. aid to Ukraine late last month, the administration of President Joe Biden squeezed $300 million in savings from a previously approved weapons contract the administration had brokered on Ukraine’s behalf.

The White House spent much of that $300 million on an emergency shipment of ATACMS. The total number of rockets exceeded a hundred, according to The New York Times. And when the White House rushed another $1 billion in weapons to Ukraine the day after Congress finally approved fresh funding, the shipment may have included additional ATACMS.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told lawmakers last week the Pentagon would donate to Ukraine “as many [ATACMS] as we can.” There are thousands of the rockets in the U.S. arsenal. Many are expiring soon as their rocket fuel degrades, possibly motivating the Americans to give them away fast.

The Russians knew ATACMS were coming. And they had ample warning that the Ukrainians would fire them at the most vulnerable concentrations of Russian forces—including training grounds. After all, Ukrainian crews firing shorter-range rockets targeted large groups of Russian trainees at least three times during one horrific week in February, reportedly killing more than a hundred people.

When the Ukrainians got their initial small batch of ATACMS, last fall, they promptly hurled the rockets at a pair of Russian airfields, damaging or destroying as many as 20 helicopters. And when the first new batch of rockets arrived, apparently in early April, Ukrainian crews wasted no time bombarding a valuable Russian air force S-400 air-defense battery, destroying at least four of its launchers.

The attack on the S-400 was a reminder that no Russian air defenses can reliably shoot down an incoming ATACMS. The implication was clear: as of April, any exposed Russians within 190 miles of the front line were vulnerable to Ukraine’s growing arsenal of ATACMS.

Ignoring the danger, the Russians gathered out in the open near Kuban—and then more than a hundred of them reportedly died as the ATACMS thundered in.