As U.S. Shifts Policy on Striking Into Russia, Kharkiv Is Hit Again

Debris covered a street and firefighters rushed to rescue people from an apartment block hit by a Russian missile early Friday in the city of Kharkiv, just hours after U.S. officials disclosed a shift in policy allowing Ukraine to defend against such attacks by hitting targets in Russia with American-provided weaponry.

The shift is narrow in scope, granting Ukraine permission to use American air defense systems, guided rockets and artillery to fire into Russia only along Ukraine’s northeastern border, near Kharkiv. Fighting has been raging in the area for the past three weeks after Russian troops poured over the border to open a new front in the war.

But hitting targets with American weapons inside Russia had been a red line drawn by the Biden administration because of worries about escalation before the cross-border fighting began near Kharkiv. Russia has been launching missiles and gathering forces in the safety of its own territory, out of range of Ukraine’s Soviet-era weaponry.

The assaults have prompted urgent appeals from Ukraine for the Biden administration to remove the shackles, framing the use of Western weapons as a purely defensive tactic. Indeed, in granting permission, U.S. officials said the weapons should only be used in self-defense in the border region.

Still, it was a significant reversal that Ukraine hopes will help it regain its footing in a war that Russia is now dominating, and was a historic moment for the U.S. as well: It appeared to be the first time an American president had allowed the limited use of American weapons to strike inside the borders of a nuclear-armed adversary.

There was no immediate response from Ukrainian officials on the policy shift. It is unclear how much of the American weapons package approved by Congress last month has arrived in northern Ukraine, or how soon Ukraine might be able to use it.

Ukrainian military officers welcomed the decision, saying their hands would be unbound to fight the Russians along the border with new supplies of powerful and precise American-provided weapons already in Ukraine’s arsenal.

This arsenal includes howitzers and guided rockets from the United States. France and Britain have provided Storm Shadow and Scalp cruise missiles.

“Do the Ukrainian defense forces know from where the occupier is attacking Kharkiv?” said Col. Yurii Ihnat, a Ukrainian air force officer, referring to the launch sites of missiles across the border in Russia. “Obviously, we do,” he said in a text message, noting that until now Ukraine had been unable to strike back.

Russian officials have been proclaiming all week that NATO countries were risking escalation if they provided Ukraine greater freedom to shoot into Russia. On Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin warned that “this unending escalation can lead to serious consequences.”

Dmitri A. Medvedev, a former Russian president whom the Kremlin often uses to deliver the most threatening warnings, asserted on Friday that Russia’s current conflict with the West was developing along “the worst possible scenario” and threatened a response of “destructive force.”

Ukrainian officials had said allowing the use of Western weaponry could help turn the tide of the fighting along the border, and defend against attacks on the city of Kharkiv, whose city center is just 24 miles from Russia, by hitting missile launchers and airplanes inside Russian territory.

Officials in Britain, France, Poland and Sweden had already voiced support for the use of their country’s weapons to strike inside Russia before the Biden administration shifted its stance, and NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, had spoken in favor of allowing Ukraine to use weapons from members of the alliance to strike targets inside Russia.

The strike on the city Friday is the type of attack Ukraine has cited in urging the United States to amend its policy.

“Unfortunately, a multistory apartment building was hit,” Kharkiv’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov, said in a statement after the early morning missile strike, conveying the latest in near-daily messages about explosions and casualties in the city.

Mr. Terekhov said that a fire had broken out. A few minutes after the first missile hit, another struck the same location in a tactic known as a double-tap that is intended to target emergency responders.

The strike killed three people and wounded 23, according to local news reports that cited the regional governor, Serhiy Synehubov. The wounded, he said, included a police officer and medic who had rushed to the site after the first missile detonated. He said a Russian S-300 missile, an outdated type of air defense missile Russia has repurposed for attacking ground targets, had hit the apartment building.

Ukraine has been striking targets deeper in Russian territory with a homegrown fleet of long-range exploding drones. The American weapons would help Ukraine’s army in the ground fighting north of Kharkiv and Ukraine’s air defense forces in defending the city, Ukrainian officials said before the announcement in Washington.

For residents of Kharkiv, the bombardments are a menace overshadowing most aspects of their lives.

The short trajectories of the bombs and missiles means civilians have little warning, or sometimes none at all, leaving people with no choice but to sleep and go about their days knowing that they could be hit by a missile at any time.

“It was all instantaneous,” said Andriy Kolenchuk, a production manager at the printing company hit on May 23. Explosions rang out, the lights blinked off and debris fell from the ceiling, he said. Dust and smoke swirled about and “everybody was running around covered in blood.”

Russian bombs and missiles streak into the city, Ukraine’s second largest with a population now of about one million, often several times a day. In one of the highest-casualty attacks in recent weeks, a missile strike on a hardware superstore on May 25 killed 19 people, according to Ukraine’s interior minister, Ihor Klimenko.

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kharkiv, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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