Monday, June 24, 2024

White House signals openness to letting Ukraine strike Russia with US weapons

Two senior Joe Biden administration officials have opened the door to allowing Ukraine to use American-donated arms to strike targets inside Russia.

The move, if made, would come as European allies, lawmakers and Ukrainian officials exert pressure on the White House to lift the restrictions, and as Russia has made major advances on the battlefield. It also suggests that President Biden and his team are increasingly worried about Kyiv’s ability to fend off Russia’s attacks, especially its latest advance in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken signaled the possible change during a visit to Moldova when pressed by reporters. A “hallmark” of the Biden administration’s approach toward Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion two years ago “has been to adapt as the conditions have changed, as the battlefield has changed, as what Russia does has changed.”

“We’ve adapted and adjusted, too, and we’ll continue to do that,” he continued.

Shortly afterward, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby, while stating that there’s “no change” in the current policy that says Ukraine can’t use U.S.-supplied weapons to strike inside Russian territory, also noted that America’s “support to Ukraine has evolved appropriately.”

Two other Biden administration officials cautioned that no final decision has been made and that Blinken and Kirby were describing a general trend of American support for Ukraine during the war — one of initial caution followed by permission. They were not necessarily guaranteeing a forthcoming shift.

The topic is “under consideration,” a U.S. official familiar with the issue said. Both were granted anonymity to speak about sensitive internal deliberations.

Kyiv hasn’t seen concrete movement on the matter from the Biden administration, according to a person close to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office. Zelenskyy, during a visit to Belgium on Tuesday, begged Western governments to “please give us permission” to use their weapons to strike targets in Russia’s sovereign territory.

The U.S. restrictions “significantly reduce the effectiveness of partners’ assistance and neutralize the efforts made,” according to an internal Ukrainian government document on Wednesday setting out talking points for Ukrainian officials, obtained by POLITICO.

Biden has faced mounting pressure at home to lift the restriction, including from Democrats, and foreign allies’ decisions to give Ukraine the go-ahead to use their transferred weapons on Russian soil have added to that pressure.

This month, U.K. Foreign Minister David Cameron said Kyiv could use British weapons to strike sovereign Russian territory. Then on Monday, NATO’s parliamentary assembly adopted a resolution calling on Western countries to allow Ukraine to use weapons to strike military targets inside Russia.

The issue gathered momentum on Tuesday, when French President Emmanuel Macron opened the door to Ukraine using donated weapons to “neutralize” Russian military sites.

“We’re not being escalatory by doing this,” Macron continued during a joint press conference alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, arguing that Ukraine should be allowed to hit targets in Russian territory where missiles are being shot from. Scholz didn’t go as far but still signaled his openness to the idea, stating Ukraine’s use of Western weapons “must always be within the framework of international law.”

Also this week, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stressed: “By having too many restrictions we are tying one hand of the Ukrainian armed forces on their back.”

The Biden administration has changed other Ukraine policies after allies have done so, namely sending long-range missiles after London and Paris delivered their versions to Kyiv.

Many top U.S. lawmakers are publicly supportive of the idea.

On Wednesday, 60 former officials and scholars sent Biden a letter, obtained by POLITICO, demanding that he lift the restriction because it could help Ukraine fend off the attack on Kharkiv and prevent other large-scale Russian offensives elsewhere.

“We must finally learn from Ukraine’s successes at calling out Russian bluster that it is not escalatory for Ukraine to defend itself. The past two years have shown that if we allow the U.S. to be held hostage to the Kremlin’s threats of escalation, Russia gains the upper hand and Ukrainian civilians pay the price,” wrote the group.

The letter’s signatories include retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former top U.S. commander in Europe, and multiple former American ambassadors to Ukraine.

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