US gives Ukraine permission to use American weapons in Russia

Move runs counter to Washington’s long-held rule but does not indicate broader policy shift

Ukrainian servicemen load a truck with the FGM-148 Javelin, an American man-portable anti-tank missile provided by US to Ukraine as part of continued military support, in Kyiv, Ukraine. AFP
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US President Joe Biden has quietly given Ukraine approval to use American-made weapons inside a limited area of Russia, as Kyiv tries desperately to counter Moscow's advances in the Kharkiv region.

The move runs against Washington’s long-held policy of not allowing Kyiv to use US-provided weapons to strike inside Russia and reflects how serious the situation has become in Ukraine's second largest city.

Ukraine's outgunned forces are struggling to hold back Moscow's offensive in the Kharkiv region near the border, with the Kremlin launching attacks from its own territory.

“The President recently directed his team to ensure that Ukraine is able to use US-supplied weapons for counter-fire purposes in the Kharkiv region, so Ukraine can hit back against Russian forces that are attacking them or preparing to attack them,” a State Department representative told The National on Thursday.

Germany followed suit on Friday, saying Ukraine could use weapons supplied by Berlin to defend itself against attacks launched from just inside Russia against Kharkiv, in accordance with international law.

"We are jointly convinced that Ukraine has the right, guaranteed under international law, to defend itself against these attacks," a government spokesperson said.

"To do so, it can also use the weapons supplied for this purpose in accordance with its international legal obligations; including those supplied by us."

The majority of weapons already delivered to Ukraine by Germany are not suitable for attacks on Russian positions well behind the frontline. Self-propelled howitzers, for example, can engage targets at a distance of up to 56 kilometres, but are not deployed in the immediate vicinity of the front.

France, Britain and the United States have supplied Ukraine with weapons with greater target ranges.

While Mr Biden approved the US weapons being used in defence of Kharkiv – a city in north-east Ukraine that Russia captured early in its invasion only for Kyiv to retake in September 2022 – the move does not reflect a broader policy shift.

“Our policy with respect to prohibiting the use of ATACMS [army tactical missile systems] or long-range strikes inside of Russia has not changed,” the State Department said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened “serious consequences” if western countries allow Ukraine to use their weapons to strike targets in Russia.

On Friday, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg played down the threat of escalation from Moscow.

“I welcome that allies are providing support to Ukraine in many different ways, but I will not go into the details,” he told journalists at a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Prague.

“Ukraine has the right [to] self-defence, and that includes also the right to strike legitimate military targets inside Russia.”

The head of the military alliance said letting western weapons hit targets in Russia was “nothing new” as Britain had long sent cruise missiles to Kyiv without restrictions.

“It has also been the case for a long time that every time Nato allies are providing support for Ukraine, [Moscow threatens] us to not do that,” he said.

“This is part of efforts by President Putin and Moscow to prevent Nato allies from supporting Ukraine to defend themselves, and, again, Ukraine has the right [to] self-defence and we have the right to help Ukraine.”

Russia made gains while Ukraine waited for the US House of Representatives to decide on whether or not to send $61 billion in military aid, which legislators approved last month.

Pressure had been building on key backer Mr Biden to shift his position on Ukrainian strikes in Russia after French President Emmanuel Macron said Kyiv should be able to hit back against attacks.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Kyiv this month, on Wednesday hinted that the US was ready to “adapt” and “adjust” to the needs of the battlefield in Ukraine.

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Updated: May 31, 2024, 10:46 AM