Biden authorizes Ukraine's use of US-supplied arms inside Russia

Officials had previously maintained that they do not encourage the use of U.S. weapons to strike within Russian territory.
Posted at 7:20 AM, May 31, 2024

The Biden administration has shifted its stance on Ukraine’s use of U.S.-supplied weapons in Russia in its fight against Putin's invasion, in a limited capacity, amid calls for looser restrictions for Ukraine’s ability to strike in Russian territory.

The guidance approved by President Biden following recommendations from senior officials took effect Thursday. It allows Ukraine’s use of counter-fire capabilities against targets across the border that Russia is using to attack the Kharkiv region from, according to a source familiar with the decision.

“The President 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 stated, noting that the policy against the use of ATACMS, or long-range strikes, inside Russia is unchanged.

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International allies have called for reconsideration of restrictions as Ukraine has faced Russian attacks against Kharkiv.

“We need to consider those national restrictions especially in the light of the nature of the fighting now taking place in the Kharkiv region where the Russians can be protected by the national border which is more or less the same as the front line,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier this week, while noting it was a decision for individual allies to make.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken first publicly indicated a potential policy shift, pointing to the adaptability in U.S. support Wednesday.

“As the conditions have changed, as the battlefield has changed, as what Russia does has changed in terms of how it’s pursuing its aggression, escalation, we’ve adapted and adjusted too, and I’m confident we’ll continue to do that,” Blinken told reporters.

But the start of considerations dates back nearly three weeks to when Russia launched its renewed offensive across the border toward the Kharkiv region in early May.

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National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown agreed to make a recommendation to Biden after meeting virtually with the Ukrainians just three days after the start of the new offensive, in which the Ukrainians made a request to use U.S.-supplied weapons against locations across the border aiding the offensive, according to a source familiar with the decision.

President Biden agreed when the recommendation was made to him two days later that Ukraine be able to use the weapons to defend against Russia’s offensive, according to a source familiar.

The president carried out follow-up conversations, and asked his team to finalize details and to continue to go over the proposal, but was clear that Ukraine should be able to counterstrike. Blinken also backed the proposal after returning from Kyiv.

Last week, President Biden gave the green light to the policy after the officials met once more. The administration remained quiet about the decision due to operational security, according to an official who suggested the timeline was more compressed than the time it typically takes for a policy like this.

Officials had previously maintained that they do not encourage the use of U.S. weapons to strike within Russia, though Austin said in response to a question posed by Scripps News last week that “the aerial dynamic’s a little bit different.”

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The U.S. does not restrict Ukraine’s use of U.S.-supplied weapons against Russian aircraft posing an imminent threat to Ukraine, according to a U.S. official, which includes Russian airspace. Officials have noted Ukraine’s previous successful operations with Western weapons against Russian aircraft.

However, the Biden administration continues to face criticism for the pace of decisions in aid for Ukraine.

“This is a step forward, but perhaps it’s better described as a half-step forward. It’s part of the continuing pattern of administration caution,” John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said, pointing to the limits on the use of longer-range weapons.

“The administration announces all the restrictions that remain and that does not smack of bold policy and that limits the impact of what Ukraine can do,” he said.

Herbst doesn’t rule out further changes, but believes the comments from allies may have influenced the administration’s decision.

The administration has maintained that its efforts to rush assistance are working. An official pointed to stalled Russian progress and confidence that Russia won’t be successful in taking Kharkiv.