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Fast Thinking May 30, 2024

Why the US is giving Ukraine the green light to attack inside Russia

By Atlantic Council


One hand may be coming untied. The White House announced Thursday that it will allow Ukraine to use US weapons for limited strikes inside Russia—a reversal of a policy that had been criticized for, in the words of the Czech foreign minister, leaving Ukraine to fight “with one hand tied behind its back.” We turned to our leading Ukraine-watcher to get his assessment.


Less than meets the eye

  • Facing pressure from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and NATO allies, the Biden administration has changed course, but it has “done so in its now well-known overly cautious way,” John tells us.
  • The decision comes with serious strings attached, he points out: “Ukraine may only use the weapons in Russian territory bordering northeast Ukraine.” Plus, strikes “can only be directed at massed troops on the border and weapons systems attacking or preparing to attack Ukraine.” 
  • According to John, that seems to rule out letting Ukraine use the 300-kilometer range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS)—which the United States first sent to Ukraine in March—even though the range of that system does not extend “very deep into Russia.” He adds that “it’s unclear” whether Ukraine will be allowed to use the 150-kilometer range ATACMS.

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The Kharkiv conundrum

  • The urgency of the course correction has to do with Russia’s ongoing advance on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which sits just thirty kilometers from the Russian border.
  • Kharkiv “has been pounded mercilessly by artillery and bombs launched by Russian aircraft just over the border,” John notes, where Russian forces enjoyed “sanctuary” under the Biden administration’s previous rules blocking Ukrainian strikes into Russia with US weapons.
  • The White House’s decision “does the minimum to help Ukraine with a difficult situation in the northeast,” removing “a major burden on Ukraine’s efforts to defend civilians in Kharkiv and to stop the Russian offensive,” John concludes. At the same time, it “makes public a range of restrictions that seem designed to temper Moscow’s reaction.“
  • “This half step is certainly better than none,” he adds, but it “does not send the necessary message of American resolve to the Kremlin.”

Further reading

Related Experts: John E. Herbst

Image: Ivan Liashko, service member of the 13th Operative Purpose Brigade 'Khartiia' of the National Guard of Ukraine and a D-20 howitzer crew commander, prepares to fire towards Russian troops in a front line in Kharkiv Region, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, Ukraine May 21, 2024. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko