From Leopard tanks to attacks on Russian soil: The red lines Ukraine has removed and those that remain

The United States and European powers have lifted the veto on NATO-supplied weapons being used against military targets in Russia’s border regions

Avdiivka, Donetsk region, Ukraine
Ukrainian soldiers use the French Caesar artillery system on the Avdiivka front in December 2022.Libkos (AP)

The relationship between Ukraine and its NATO allies has followed a pattern of tug-of-war that has left Kyiv desperate. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in February 2022, limitations imposed by the Atlantic Alliance powers in the military field for fear of an escalation of the war beyond Ukraine have been overcome by the government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Every major decision, from the delivery of German Leopard tanks to U.S. F-16 fighters, has been preceded by lengthy negotiations. Now, one of the major red lines that had been in place since the beginning of Western support for the invaded country has been removed: the use of NATO weaponry against military targets on Russian soil.

The Russian offensive launched on May 10 north of the city of Kharkiv has again underlined the need for Ukraine to use NATO-supplied missiles and artillery against targets on the other side of the border. The Kremlin concentrates its artillery positions, missile systems, aviation and drone units operating against Ukraine in the Russian province of Belgorod, bordering the invaded territory north of Kharkiv.

Kyiv had been pressing its partners since early May to give the go-ahead for the use of its weaponry against targets inside Russia. After resounding refusals, last week saw a succession of messages of support from powers such as France and Germany, and finally, on Thursday, from the United States. The U.S. and Ukrainian press reported that President Joe Biden had secretly given authorization for artillery, anti-aircraft systems and Himars medium-range missiles supplied by Washington to strike Russian military targets across the border from the Ukrainian provinces of Kharkiv and Sumi. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed the decision on Friday at a press conference during a NATO meeting in Prague.

Key to the change in the U.S. position — which has been very gradual but gained momentum as the damage caused by the delay in Congress to renew military aid to the invaded country became clear — was Blinken’s own visit to Kyiv two weeks ago, during which the head of U.S. diplomacy was able to see first-hand Ukraine’s military needs. But, as the U.S. accelerates its production of ammunition to send to Kyiv and explores ways to speed up arms deliveries, Biden continues to prohibit its long-range ATACMS missiles from being used against Russian territory.

This poses a new barrier that Kyiv will try to circumvent. Zelenskiy stated last week that Moscow is massing thousands of troops 90 kilometers (56 miles) from the border to redouble pressure on the Kharkiv front. Petro Chernik, a colonel in the Ukrainian army, assured Espresso media on May 28 that the only way to hit this concentration of troops is precisely with ATACMS, loaded with cluster munitions. Blinken, asked about this in Prague, said that his government will “adapt and adjust” its position if necessary. A catch-all position that Washington has reiterated time and again. “We want to make sure that we’re proceeding deliberately as well as effectively,” the secretary of state added.

The White House’s decision is “the minimum to help Ukraine in a difficult situation in its northeast,” in the Kharkiv area, notes John Herbst of the Center for Eurasia at the Atlantic Council think tank. It removes, the analyst continues, “a major obstacle in Ukraine’s efforts to defend civilians in Kharkiv and to stop the Russian offensive.” “This half-hearted step is better than nothing,” continues the former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, but “it does not send the necessary message to the Kremlin about U.S. resolve” in the war.

Nuclear threat

Each green light in favor of Ukraine has been accompanied by threats from Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on May 29 of “serious consequences” if NATO missiles are used against Russia: “In Europe, especially in small countries, they should be aware of what they are playing with.”

“Russia has been very adept at exploiting U.S. and German fears of unconventional escalation. Russian nuclear threats have delayed and limited crucial aid to Ukraine,” Mikola Bielieskov, a researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, an agency under the Ukrainian presidency, told EL PAÍS. Another of the episodes in this pressure game was the authorization given by Berlin in January 2023 for the transfer of Leopard tanks to the Ukrainian army. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had for weeks refused the supply of these armored vehicles on the grounds that it would be a provocation to Russia.

Scholz continues to rule out sending German Taurus long-range missiles to Ukraine for fear of a direct conflict with Russia, although other states did end up providing them after more than a year of Kyiv’s insistence: the UK and France have been supplying their Storm Shadow/Scalp rockets since 2023 and the U.S., since this spring, the ATACMS. Unlike these countries, Germany does not have the deterrent of nuclear weapons in its arsenal.

Every decision, “a year late”

“Every decision to which we, then later everyone together, comes to is late by around one year,” Zelenskiy told Reuters on May 20. A case in point is the F-16 fighters. Being of U.S. production, the delivery of these aircraft requires prior authorization from Washington. For almost a year, the transfer of F-16s was denied, citing the difficult training of pilots, the complexity of supplying components and the possibility that the Ukrainian Air Force would use them to attack inside Russia. Biden finally gave his approval in August 2023. The first six aircraft, donated by Denmark, are expected to enter combat this summer.

The delivery of the 90 F-16s Ukraine will receive from Denmark, Belgium, Norway, and the Netherlands will be important in the country’s defense, but former Armed Forces of Ukraine commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi acknowledged last November that these aircraft would be at least a year too late to be decisive because the enemy has had time to establish a powerful network of anti-aircraft systems in the battle theater.

Ukraine is also testing the limits of its allies. Armored infantry vehicles supplied by the U.S. and Poland were used in the May 2023 incursion into Russian territory by Russian paramilitary groups opposed to Putin. In the operation, which was coordinated by the Ukrainian intelligence services, Belgian and Czech assault rifles were also used, as well as Swedish anti-tank rockets. This caused unease in the aforementioned countries, but more friction came over the use of a U.S. Patriot anti-aircraft missile, donated by Germany, to shoot down a Russian plane in enemy territory, the German newspaper Bild reported on May 28. Berlin and Washington threatened to stop supplying more Patriot systems, according to the newspaper. Pentagon sources assured The New York Times last February that another Patriot missile destroyed a military cargo plane in the Russian province of Belgorod.

There are U.S. red lines that have also disappeared in the face of Kyiv’s disregard for them. Ukrainian intelligence services have been periodically attacking Russian oil industry facilities with drone bombs since January. This offensive has intensified despite the U.S. government publicly and privately asking Zelenskiy to stop because it jeopardizes the stability of global fuel prices. Biden was similarly opposed in the early months of 2022 to Ukraine attacking Russian targets on the Crimean Peninsula, illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014, but his position shifted in August of that year after finding, again, that the defending army was doing so without seeking permission. Now even ATACMS are being launched toward Crimea, such as in an attack against a ferry in the Kerch Strait that was destroyed on May 30 with one of these missiles.

Zelenskiy has already put on the table the next item that will test the limits of Kyiv’s allies: the request for NATO aircraft and anti-aircraft defenses to intercept Russian missiles and drones from Poland and Romania. Bielieskov confirms that Ukraine would like to see other red lines removed, such as the receipt of U.S. intelligence on the location of military targets on Russian soil — something the White House refuses to provide — or the entry into action of NATO troops, as French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed. But the most important barrier, Bielieskov adds, will remain that Ukraine is not yet part of NATO: “As long as this is not possible, there will always be red lines.”

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