UK gives Ukraine green light to use British weapons inside Russia

Ukraine can use British-supplied weapons to strike targets inside Russia, UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron stated during a May 2 visit to Kyiv. “Ukraine has that right,” Cameron told Reuters. “Just as Russia is striking inside Ukraine, you can quite understand why Ukraine feels the need to make sure it’s defending itself.”

The British Foreign Secretary’s comments represent a departure from the cautious position adopted by most of Ukraine’s Western partners over the past two years. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022, the majority of countries backing Ukraine have insisted that Western weapons can only be used within Ukraine’s international borders and must not be deployed against targets inside the Russian Federation.

These restrictions reflect widespread concerns in Western capitals over a possible escalation of the current war into a far broader European conflict. Moscow has skillfully exploited the West’s fear of escalation, with Kremlin officials regularly warning of Russian red lines and Vladimir Putin making frequent thinly-veiled nuclear threats.

So far, Russia’s intimidation tactics have proved highly effective. By threatening to escalate the war, Moscow has been able to slow down the flow of military aid to Ukraine, while also deterring the delivery of certain weapons categories and limiting Kyiv’s ability to strike back against otherwise legitimate targets inside Russia.

This has placed Ukraine at a significant military disadvantage. Already massively outgunned and outnumbered by its much larger and wealthier Russian adversary, Ukraine has had to defend itself without the ability to deploy Western weapons against Russia’s military infrastructure. Critics of this approach claim the West is effectively making Ukraine fight against a far larger opponent with one hand tied behind its back.

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With the existence of their country under threat, Ukrainians have bristled at Western restrictions and are using their own limited range of weapons to strike back. These attacks include a recent campaign of long-range drone strikes on Russian refineries that have hurt the Russian energy sector and divided opinion among Ukraine’s partners. While US officials have voiced their disapproval and urged Kyiv to focus on military targets, France has indicated its support.

The situation regarding the use of Western weapons on Russian territory has been further complicated by the Kremlin’s territorial claims inside Ukraine. In September 2022, Moscow declared the “annexation” of four Ukrainian regions and officially incorporated them into the Russian Constitution. Fighting has continued in all four of these partially occupied Ukrainian provinces, with the Ukrainian military free to deploy Western weapons despite the Kremlin’s insistence that these regions are now part of Russia.

In contrast to the caution displayed by Western leaders, Ukraine has repeatedly called Putin’s bluff and exposed the emptiness of Russia’s nuclear blackmail. Weeks after the Kremlin dictator ceremoniously announced the entry of Kherson into the Russian Federation, Ukrainian troops liberated the city. Rather than retaliating by deploying the might of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, Putin simply accepted this humiliating defeat and withdrew his beleaguered army across the Dnipro River.

The Kremlin’s reaction to mounting Ukrainian attacks on the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula has been similarly underwhelming. Since first occupying Crimea in 2014, Putin has portrayed the peninsula in almost mystical terms as a symbol of Russia’s return to Great Power status. However, when Ukraine used a combination of locally developed naval drones and Western-supplied cruise missiles to sink or damage around one-third of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Putin quietly ordered the bulk of his remaining warships to retreat from Crimea and head for Russian ports. Despite the crucial role played by Western weapons in this Ukrainian success, there has been no sign of any escalation from Russia.

With the Russian invasion now in its third year, there are indications that Western leaders may now finally be overcoming their self-defeating fear of escalation. In addition to David Cameron’s landmark comments regarding the use of British weapons inside Russia, the US has recently begun providing Ukraine with large quantities of long-range ATACMS missile systems capable of striking targets throughout occupied Ukrainian territory. Moscow had consistently warned against such deliveries, but has yet to provide any meaningful response to this highly conspicuous crossing of yet another Russian red line.

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron is actively attempting to reclaim the escalation initiative from Moscow by refusing to rule out the deployment of Western troops to Ukraine. This development has clearly riled the Kremlin. Putin has reacted to Macron’s newfound boldness by engaging in more nuclear blackmail, while the nuclear saber-rattling continued last weekend on Russia’s flagship current affairs TV show. None of this seems to have put Macron off. On the contrary, he remains adamant that direct Western military involvement in the defense of Ukraine must remain on the table.

This apparent strengthening of Western resolve comes at a pivotal moment in the war. With Ukrainian forces suffering from shortages in both ammunition and manpower, Russia has recently been able to regain the battlefield initiative and make significant advances for the first time in two years. Preparations are now underway for a major Russian summer offensive that could potentially break through Ukraine’s weakened front lines and deliver a knockout blow to the war weary country.

Removing restrictions on attacks inside Russia would enable Ukraine to disrupt preparations for the coming offensive. It would also limit Russia’s ability to bomb Ukrainian cities and destroy the country’s civilian infrastructure with impunity. This will not be enough to transform the course of the war, but it will go some way to evening out the odds.

By giving Kyiv the green light to use Western weapons in Russia, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron has established an important new precedent. This is in many ways fitting. After all, Britain has consistently set the tone for international aid since the eve of the Russian invasion, providing Ukrainians with anti-tank weapons, tanks, and cruise missiles in advance of other allies. Ukrainians will now be hoping the country’s other partners follow suit soon.

Peter Dickinson is editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert service.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: British Foreign Secretary David Cameron speaks to a reporter outside St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine, May 2, 2024. (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)