Ukraine pressures its allies to allow it to use NATO weapons against Russian territory

After the Kremlin’s offensive in Kharkiv, Kyiv’s diplomatic efforts are focused on Washington and Europe authorizing the use of their artillery and missiles to hit targets on the other side of the border

A Ukrainian soldier preparing to fire at Russian positions in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 21.Oleksandr Ratushniak (REUTERS)
Cristian Segura

Ukraine is focusing its diplomatic efforts on convincing its allies to allow its military to use NATO weaponry against targets on Russian soil. Kyiv has succeeded in the past in moving the red lines imposed on it by its partners in the West, after months of negotiations. The new Russian offensive on Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, has accelerated Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s diplomatic drive to allay the fears of the United States and Europe of a possible escalation if weapons provided by them target Russian sovereign territory.

The Kremlin launched a lightning offensive from the Russian province of Belgorod against Kharkiv, which is located just 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the border, on May 10. The advance of Russian troops has been steady but at the cost of heavy casualties, due in large part to the fact that their artillery, aircraft, and drones can operate from positions in neighboring Russia. The White House last week received a formal request from Kyiv to use U.S. weapons and other assistance against Russian territory, Charles Q. Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed to the media.

Brown declined to specify what actions Ukraine was asking to be able to take in Russia, but his words could be interpreted as the request involving information from U.S. satellites on the location of enemy bases. The intelligence provided by the Pentagon has been key in identifying the location of Russian troops and military installations inside Ukraine, but it has so far avoided providing this data on Russian soil. Western conflict analysis centers such as the Institute for the Study of War have noted that the inability of Ukraine to respond across the border places its military in a weak position to contain the offensive in Kharkiv.

Since last week, Zelenskiy has given several interviews in which he has stressed the need for Ukraine to be able to defend itself beyond its own borders. The latest statements to this effect came on May 21 in The New York Times: “What we have always asked of President Biden — and not only President Biden, but the leaders of many countries — is that we want to use the weapons for defense,” the Ukrainian leader said. “How do we respond when they strike our cities? They are stationed in the villages nearest to the border of Ukraine in Russia. They strike from there, knowing that we will not return fire, knowing that they are using civilian populations as cover. But they proceed calmly, understanding that our partners do not give us permission.”

Zelenskiy explained that the weapons the Armed Forces of Ukraine want to use will be deployed against military targets: he cited NATO howitzers — these would be used on the Kharkiv front, the only battlefield from which Russian territory would be within range of Ukrainian artillery — U.S.-manufactured HIMARS short-range missiles and ATACMS long-range missiles, and British-French Storm Shadow/Scalp long-range missiles. Zelenskiy also demanded, as he does on a recurring basis, the green light to use these missiles to attack airfields hundreds of miles from the front lines from which Russian bombers operate.

Kharkiv, Ukraine
Members of the emergency services remove the body of one of the victims of a Russian bombing in Kharkiv, on May 23.SERGEY KOZLOV (EFE)

The United States agreed in April, after two years of negotiations, to supply Ukraine with long-range ATACMS missiles, another red line to which Kyiv’s allies eventually acquiesced. This was also the case with opposition to sending heavy armor provided by Germany and the United States, or the refusal during the first year and a half of the war to deliver fighter planes to the invaded country. This summer, the first six F-16 fighters for the Ukrainian Air Force are expected to arrive from Denmark.

Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium have agreed to donate more than 70 F-16s to Ukraine. Zelenskiy has stated that to counter Russian air dominance, Kyiv would need at least 120 of these fighters. According to Ukrainian military intelligence, the Russian Air Force has about 300 fighter jets operating in the theater of war.

One of the reasons why Biden resisted the delivery of F-16s was due to concerns they would be used for bombing targets within Russian borders. For the same reason, Germany refuses to deliver its Taurus long-range missiles, despite the Ukrainian government’s assurance that this will not be the case.

Ukraine regularly hits military, industrial, and energy infrastructure targets inside Russia, even up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the border. It is achieving this with swarms of homegrown drone bombs that are battering Russia’s oil industry. Washington has called on Zelenskiy to halt this campaign because it could destabilize the global fuel market, but the warnings, voiced in public even by Biden’s Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have fallen on deaf ears.

Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander went so far as to criticize the Ukrainian strategy in an appearance before the U.S. Congress, in which she deemed the attacks on civilian infrastructure unbecoming of a democracy. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on May 15 in Kyiv — and repeated the same in an appearance before Congress this past Wednesday — that Washington’s position had not changed: it is not in favor of the war being extended to Russia. “We have not encouraged or enabled strikes outside of Ukraine, but ultimately Ukraine has to make decisions for itself about how it’s going to conduct this war, a war it’s conducting in defense of its freedom, of its sovereignty, of its territorial integrity.” These words, which are not new on the part of the U.S. administration, have now been interpreted in the Ukrainian media as a sign that Washington might consider lifting its veto. The New York Times reported Thursday that Blinken is in favor of it.

Ukraine’s Baltic allies are its main backers for a shift in NATO’s position. “From the beginning we made the mistake of placing limits on the Ukrainians, because we thought it would be seen as an escalation [of the war],” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said on LRT television on May 21. “The Ukrainians must be able to strike on Russian territory, their logistical lines, and troops preparing to attack. There is only one side that is complying with the rules. These rules we imposed on ourselves; we have to abandon them.”

Zelenskiy has also suggested the possibility of neighboring NATO member countries collaborating in the defense of Ukrainian cities by intercepting Russian missiles. The intervention of the U.S., Jordan, and the U.K. in intercepting missiles fired by Iran against Israel last April caused a stir in Ukrainian society. Why couldn’t the Ukrainians have this support from Romania and Poland? Oleksandr Lytvynenko, secretary of the Ukrainian National Security Council, called the limitations imposed on Kyiv by its allies “totally unfair” in an interview with The Financial Times on Wednesday. “But it is what it is: one big step forward, but before that two steps back,” Zelenskiy said in an interview with Reuters this week. “Every decision to which we, then later everyone together, comes to is late by around one year.”

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