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Biden Administration Approves Limited Ukrainian Strikes in Russia

The shift is limited in scope, allowing Ukrainian forces to use short-range missiles from HIMARS launchers, or artillery, to hit command-and-control posts, arms depots, and other military targets used as part of the Kharkiv offensive. Ukraine will still be barred from using longer-range surface-to-surface missiles known as ATACMS against targets inside Russia.

U.S. President Joe Biden "recently directed his team to ensure that Ukraine is able to use U.S.-supplied weapons for counter-fire purposes in the Kharkiv region so Ukraine can hit back against Russian forces that are attacking them or preparing to attack them," a U.S. official told RFE/RL. "Our policy with respect to prohibiting the use of ATACMS or long-range strikes inside of Russia has not changed."

The change was first reported by Politico.

"Ukraine has the right to strike targets in Russia," Jack Watling, senior researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said during a Financial Times podcast prior to the announcement. "It is at war with Russia, and Russia is striking targets in Ukraine every day."

But he said the question is what kinds of weapons Ukraine would be allowed to use to make a substantial difference. Howitzers fired across the border are one thing; longer-range Storm Shadow or Scalp cruise missiles or ATACMS missiles are another.

"I think if we just draw a hard line and say, 'Strikes in Russia? No.' That's very unhelpful," he said. "But we do also need to appreciate that there are different kinds of strikes using different kinds of systems that hold quite different risks."

Red Lines

In the past, Russia has warned that Washington supplying longer-range weaponry to Ukraine "would cross a red line." But even as Western weapon supplies have grown in frequency and number, Russia has refrained from targeting shipments or depots where they could be located.

Asked about the reported change in U.S. policy, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov claimed that Moscow knew nothing about it and suggested that the Russian government did not see it as a significant change in the status quo.

"It's well known that on the whole American weapons have already been used to try and target Russian territory," he said on May 31. "That is enough for us to know and is very eloquent evidence of the level of involvement of the United States in this conflict."

Ukraine for months has enthusiastically gone after targets in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Russia seized in 2014. Russia has a substantial deployment of troops, aircraft, and equipment there, not to mention its Black Sea Fleet naval ships, which until recently have been based in the port of Sevastopol.

In late April, Ukraine used ATACMS, or Army Tactical Missile System, to hit an airfield in Dzhankoy in Crimea. Though Ukraine had received shorter-range versions of the ATACMS in the past, the Dzhankoy attack was the first time Ukraine had used the longer-range model -- something that the United States had secretly supplied months prior.

Ukraine has also used the British-French-designed Storm Shadow missiles to target Russian naval facilities in Crimea.

Since the United States, like most of the international community, does not recognize Russia's claim to Crimea, there were few, if any, restrictions on Ukraine targeting sites in Crimea.

Ukrainian forces have been struggling on the battlefield for months now, a situation caused in part by the pause in U.S. weapons supplies that resulted from political infighting in Washington.

On May 10, their struggles deepened further when tens of thousands of Russian troops crossed the border north of the city of Kharkiv, opening up a new offensive and forcing Ukrainian commanders to rush more experienced units to the region from other hot spots.

The policy change "will allow for Ukraine to target Russian troops, especially high-value targets such as command-and-control elements, artillery, logistics, and air-defense units that are located on Russian territory near Kharkiv and concentrating or rehearsing future operations against Ukraine," Mick Ryan, a retired Australian Army major general, said in an e-mail newsletter. "This is the kind of operational strike -- the ability to destroy Russian military forces before they are committed to combat operations -- that is essential while Ukraine reconstitutes its forces in 2024."

One of the reasons Russia is making gains at present is its dominance of the air. Russia has been able to use jet-dropped glide bombs to devastating effect, said Johan Norberg, a senior analyst and expert on Russia's military at the Swedish Defense Research Agency FOI.

Ukraine has been unable to push back due to a lack of robust air defenses such as U.S.-made Patriot systems.

With Western weaponry and the ability to strike Russian airfields, Ukraine should be able to curtail Russia's ability to attack effectively with planes, Norberg said.

"They have to move farther away, also making things more difficult in terms of the frequency of sorties you can make over Ukraine," he told RFE/RL. "And then the military rationale is clear. There could be other arguments I could find, like striking on command posts…deeper inside Russia or various logistics hubs…. But I think right now, air power seems to be some of the Ukraine's biggest problems at the moment."

'Boiling A Frog Slowly'

It's unclear exactly what prompted the Biden administration to change its policy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who traveled to Kyiv last month, reportedly received a sober assessment of the ability of Ukraine's forces to hold out. In Congress, lawmakers from both parties had criticized the White House for holding Ukraine back.

Speaking to Blinken at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on May 22, the committee's Republican chairman, Michael McCaul, accused the Biden administration, and White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan more specifically, of creating a "sanctuary" for Russian forces across the border.

Germany, which has been one of the most hesitant NATO members where Western weaponry is concerned, on May 31 signaled it was in agreement with the new U.S. policy. Ukraine has repeatedly asked Berlin for its Taurus KEPD-350 cruise missile.

Over the past two weeks, a growing chorus of NATO members have come out in support of using various Western weaponry more aggressively, to hit targets inside Russia itself.

"However, with regard to weapons that can operate over a long distance, of hundreds of kilometers, there is still a reluctance on our part," German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius told reporters during a visit to Moldova.

"Looking at where we are today, where we…supply missiles, armored vehicles, what have you -- they would have been out of the question two years ago. But everything is done very gradually," Norberg said. "Whether this was deliberate to, sort of, slowly boil the frog, and not pass any Russian red lines, or just because of decision-making taking a long time at the West, I don't know."

Complicating the discussion: Ukraine's willingness to go after Russian targets - civilian or military - on its own, with its own technology, in all likelihood without U.S. and NATO approval. The attack on the Voronezh-M radar installation near the city of Orsk on May 27 was the latest example.

That drew criticism from some arms control experts who say it's potentially dangerous for Ukraine to target military objects used for nuclear deterrence - not something directly related to the Ukraine conflict.

By RFE/RL

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RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. We provide what many… More