Fighting Russia: The West considers Ukraine's use of weapons

As Ukraine's second-largest city prepares for a new Russian offensive, a growing number of NATO allies support Kiev's calls to allow its forces to conduct attacks on Russian territory with Western weapons.

President Biden has decided to allow Ukraine to use American weapons against military targets in Russia to blunt the Kharkiv offensive, just days after Canada decided to allow the use of supplied weapons. More than a dozen countries have given similar permission to Ukraine.

The United States, Ukraine's largest arms supplier, has been reluctant to take this step, worried about provoking an escalation with Russia that could involve NATO and trigger a wider war. Without Washington's approval, the U.S. Army's Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, can only strike Russian targets inside Ukraine.

Yet many Western leaders and military analysts say that, with Russia massing thousands of troops on its side of the border – less than 20 miles from the northeastern city of Kharkiv – Ukraine desperately needs the authority to strike all inside Russia with Western weapons. President Biden's permission is intended solely for Ukraine to attack military sites in Russia used for the Kharkiv offensive, US officials said.

“Russian commanders are well aware of Ukraine's inability to fight back,” wrote Peter Dickinson, a Ukraine analyst at the Atlantic Council in Washington, in an analysis published before Biden's policy shift.

Officials and experts say firing missiles into Russia, hitting its troops, bases, airfields and supply lines, could pay immediate dividends. Indeed, the Ukrainian military already appears to be preparing to launch some initial strikes, “to test the Russian response,” Rafael Loss, an arms expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview Thursday.

Ukraine and NATO allies have been reluctant to take the risk of changing tactics without U.S. approval, Loss said. “The United States would ultimately shoulder much of the burden of responding if there were a significant escalation by Russia, for example, against NATO territory.”

Below is a list of those countries that have already given permission to Ukraine to use their weapons on Russian territory and those that have not, and the likely impact of Ukraine being granted freedom to fight against Russia.

Each country that supplies weapons to Ukraine has the right to prescribe how they will be used, and so far Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland have declared their support Ukraine strikes military targets on Russian soil.

Some nations are more cautious than others. Germany and Sweden, for example, conditioned their approval exclusively “within the scope of international law”, as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday. He was specifying a requirement that other countries have also maintained over the past two years of arming Ukraine, although not expressed so clearly.

Britain was one of the first to support the easing of restrictions. “Ukraine has this right,” Foreign Minister David Cameron said during a visit to Kiev on May 3. “Just as Russia is striking into Ukraine, you can understand why Ukraine feels the need to make sure it defends itself.”

The movement gained momentum as vigorous support from French President Emmanuel Macron helped persuade a more reluctant Germany to reconsider its position this week. “It's as if we told them: 'We give you weapons but you can't use them to defend yourself,'” Macron said in Berlin this week, with Scholz at his side.

Several countries – Belgium, Italy and, so far, the United States – have said they are not ready to let Ukraine use its weapons to strike targets inside Russia, citing risks that can be difficult to predict. For example, recent Ukrainian drone attacks on Russian nuclear warning radar systems, a potentially destabilizing step, have raised deep concerns in Washington.

On Monday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said NATO allies “must be very cautious” before Western weapons are used on Russian territory. The next day, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced the donation of 30 F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, but only “for use by the Ukrainian Defense Forces on Ukrainian territory.”

In Washington, a White House spokesperson said Tuesday that the Biden administration will not “encourage or permit” the use of American weapons on Russian soil. But that resistance waned in the face of growing pressure from its allies, when Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken suggested the next day that the United States might “adapt and adjust” its posture based on camp conditions. battle.

The Biden administration has a long history of resisting Ukrainian demands for more powerful weapons, only to relent under pressure and when Ukraine's prospects appeared to dim. This has happened with, among other weapons, ATACM missile systems, Abrams tanks, and F-16 fighter jets.

But, in a small number of cases, the United States allowed Ukrainian troops to use Patriot air defense missiles to shoot down Russian fighter jets operating in Russian airspace, a senior Biden administration official said.

With permission already granted, Ukraine can strike Russia with Storm Shadow missiles supplied by Britain and the closely related SCALP missiles from France. The missiles have a range of about 150 miles and are launched from Ukraine's aging fleet of Soviet-designed fighter planes.

Several countries – Britain, Germany, Norway and the United States – have provided Ukraine with land-based launchers capable of firing long-range missiles. These systems are known as HIMARS and MLRS launchers and can also launch US ATACMS missiles, which have a range of up to 190 miles.

“If they give the green light to use ATACMS, it could compromise Russia's ability to use its territory as a sanctuary for ground operations,” Loss said.

(Germany has so far refused to donate its Taurus missile, with a range of 310 miles, partly out of fear that it could be launched deep into Russia and escalate the war. Now it is even less likely to do so, Mr. Loss said .)

Additionally, Britain, Canada and the United States have supplied Ukraine with medium-range missiles or small-diameter land-based bombs that can reach Russia 50 to 90 miles away.

But the new authorizations could have their biggest impact in the war for air superiority, especially if allies allow donated jets and drones to attack inside Russian airspace.

It is unclear whether Denmark or the Netherlands would allow F-16s sent by Ukraine to fly over Russian territory, where they could be shot down. In comments this week, Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren did not appear to place specific limits on the weapons supplied by the Netherlands. “Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil are something I have never ruled out,” he said.

At least four other countries – Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and North Macedonia – have supplied Soviet-era fighter planes. Britain and Türkiye have sent long-range attack drones that could also fly directly to Russia.

At the very least, Loss said, the soon-to-arrive fleet of F-16s will be equipped with long-range missiles that could hit Russian jets “from behind their border,” with implications for Ukraine's future air power.

“We're not there yet,” he said, noting that Ukrainian pilots have yet to master the warplane with enough skill to counter Russia's advantage. “But there is the potential for Ukraine's future F-16 fleet to strike Russian territory.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, e Edward Wong from Prague, Czech Republic.

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