Taking the Fight to Russia: The West Weighs Ukraine’s Use of Its Weapons

With Ukraine’s second-largest city bracing for a new Russian offensive, a growing number of NATO allies are backing Kyiv’s pleas to allow its forces to conduct strikes in Russian territory with Western weapons.

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

The United States, the most important supplier of weaponry to Ukraine, had been reluctant to take the step, worried about provoking Russia into an escalation that could drag in NATO and set off a wider war. Without sign-off from Washington, the American-made Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, can strike Russian targets only 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 badly needs the authority to strike inside Russia with Western weapons. The permission from President Biden is intended solely for Ukraine to attack military sites in Russia being used for the Kharkiv offensive, U.S. officials said.

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

Officials and experts say that launching missiles into Russia, striking 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 out the Russian response,” Rafael Loss, a weapons expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview on Thursday.

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

Following is a rundown of those countries that have already given permission for Ukraine to use their weapons in Russian territory and those that have not, and the likely impact if Ukraine is granted the freedom to take the fight to Russia.

Every country giving weapons to Ukraine has the right to prescribe how they are used, and so far Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland have stated their support for Ukraine hitting military targets on Russian soil.

Some nations are more cautious than others. Germany and Sweden, for example, conditioned their approval solely “within the framework of international law,” as Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany put it on Tuesday. He was spelling out a requirement that other countries have also maintained over the last two years of arming Ukraine, even if not voiced as prominently.

Britain was one of the first to argue for loosening the restraints. “Ukraine has that right,” Foreign Minister David Cameron said during a May 3 visit to Kyiv. “Just as Russia is striking inside Ukraine, you can quite understand why Ukraine feels the need to make sure it’s defending itself.”

The movement picked up steam when vigorous support by President Emmanuel Macron of France helped persuade a more reluctant Germany to reconsider its position this week. “It’s as if we were telling them: ‘We’re giving you arms but you cannot use them to defend yourself’,” Mr. Macron said in Berlin this week, with Mr. Scholz by his side.

Several countries — Belgium, Italy and, until now, the United States — have said they were not ready to let Ukraine use their weapons to hit targets inside Russia, citing the risks, which can be hard to anticipate. For example, recent Ukrainian attacks with its own drones on Russia’s nuclear early-warning radar systems, a potentially destabilizing step, have raised deep concerns in Washington.

On Monday, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni of Italy said NATO allies “must be very prudent” before Western weapons are used in Russian territory. A day later, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo of Belgium announced the donation of 30 F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine — but only “for utilization by the Ukraine Defense Forces on Ukraine territory.”

In Washington, a White House spokesman maintained on Tuesday that the Biden administration would not “encourage or enable” the use of American weapons on Russian soil. But that resistance softened in the face of mounting pressure from its allies, as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken suggested the next day that the U.S. might “adapt and adjust” its stance based on battlefield conditions.

The Biden administration has a long history of resisting Ukrainian requests for more powerful weapons, only to give in under pressure and when Ukraine’s prospects seemed to be dimming. This happened with the ATACM missile systems, Abrams tanks and F-16 fighter jets, among other weapons.

But, in a small number of cases, the United States has let Ukrainian troops use Patriot air-defense missiles to shoot down Russian combat aircraft operating in Russian air space, a senior Biden administration official said.

With permission already granted, Ukraine can strike into 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 fired from Ukraine’s aging fleet of Soviet-designed fighter jets.

Several countries — Britain, Germany, Norway and the United States — have given Ukraine ground-based launchers that can fire longer-range missiles. Those systems are known as HIMARS and MLRS launchers, and they can also shoot the United States’ ATACMS, missiles that have a range of up to 190 miles.

“If they green-light the use of ATACMS, that could degrade Russia’s ability to use its territory as a sanctuary for ground operations,” Mr. Loss said.

(Germany has so far refused to donate its Taurus missile, with a range of 310 miles, in part out of concern that it would be fired deep into Russia and escalate the war. It is now even less likely to do so, Mr. Loss said.)

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

But the new authorizations may have their greatest impact in the war for air superiority — especially if the allies allow their donated jets and drones to attack within Russia’s air space.

It is not clear if Denmark or the Netherlands would allow the F-16s they are sending Ukraine to fly over Russian territory, where they could be shot down. In comments this week, the Dutch defense minister, Kajsa Ollongren, appeared to place no specific limits on the weapons given by the Netherlands. “Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil are something I have never ruled out,” she said.

At least four other countries — Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and North Macedonia — have provided Soviet-era fighter jets. Britain and Turkey have sent long-range attack drones that also could directly fly into Russia.

At the least, Mr. Loss said, the soon-to-arrive F-16 fleet will come equipped with long-range missiles that could target 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 edge. “But there’s some potential for Ukraine’s future F-16 fleet to strike into Russian territory.”

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

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