Ukraine Has Every Right To Hit Russians in Russia With US Weapons

In fact, it already does so; White House restrictions are outmoded, illogical and contradictory

Ukraine Has Every Right To Hit Russians in Russia With US Weapons
Smoke rises over a Soviet-era memorial in Vovchansk, Ukraine, in May 2024. (Kostiantyn Liberov/Libkos/Getty Images)

From the small town of Staryi Saltiv in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region, roughly 9 miles behind the front line, the fighting was clearly audible and visible in the near distance. Plumes of smoke rose from the city of Vovchansk as it burned, the result of Russian artillery and airstrikes. Ukrainian helicopters flew in and out on strike missions, their pilots nearly touching the tops of trees with the wheels of their old ex-Soviet gunships. Heavy military equipment and convoys of Ukrainian troops lined the roads heading toward the front. Coaches full of evacuees, carrying whatever valuables they could, headed in the opposite direction toward the relative safety of Kharkiv city.

This didn’t have to happen.

For the past two months, Russia has amassed troops on its side of the Kharkiv border, in Belgorod region, as Ukrainian reconnaissance teams looked on helplessly, unable to use their most effective U.S.-built artillery systems, the M142 HIMARS and the M270 MLRS. This is because of Washington’s insistence that such munitions be aimed strictly within Ukrainian territory, parameters that appear increasingly ineffective in light of Russia’s new offensive, meant to stretch an already critical Ukrainian defensive line to breaking point and possibly bring Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv, home to some 1.5 million people, into the range of heavy artillery.

Moscow’s new offensive, which has claimed over 100 square miles of territory in 13 days — more than Ukraine managed to claw back during its anticlimactic summer counteroffensive last year — could have been slowed and perhaps even halted had the Biden administration lifted its restrictions.

Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv told New Lines that they were unable to build defense lines within artillery range of the border because the heavy construction equipment required was met by a barrage of incoming fire from the Russians on the other side. As a result, one Ukrainian soldier explained, most of the construction had to be carried out by hand, at night. When Russian troops finally crossed the border on May 10, they used heavy artillery fire from within Russia to support their advance. Even then, the Ukrainians were unable to fire back with their most effective weapons, an artificial restriction the Russians were both well aware of and happy to exploit.

It doesn’t require extensive military experience to recognize this is an untenable way to fight a war — let alone to win it.

Dmytro, a Ukrainian marine currently fighting in Vovchansk, believes the Russians are keenly aware of the restrictions the Ukrainian military is operating under and deploy their forces accordingly. “Most of their artillery is located in Belgorod, inside Russia,” Dmytro explained to New Lines. “HIMARS is very effective against Russian artillery because it can fire from a safe distance,” he said. The American system, firing a standard payload of GMLRS rockets, has a range of around 43 miles — significantly longer than the majority of Russian artillery. But the systems the U.S. have delivered to Ukraine have been specially modified to prevent them from striking targets inside Russian territory. “We have our own artillery, but there’s a very high risk it would be destroyed,” Dmytro explained.

American restrictions also ban the Ukrainian air force from using its JDAM GPS-guided smart bombs, according to Dmytro. The same applies to the newly supplied ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles, which are fired from HIMARS and M270s and could easily hit Russian troop concentrations, military bases and ammunition dumps. The Russians were thus able to enter Ukraine uncontested until they physically crossed the border.

Kyiv may face similar constraints with respect to other Western weapons. In a recent press conference, deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh appeared to indicate that weapon systems supplied by Ukraine’s other foreign allies should also come with the same geographical limitations. “We believe that the equipment, the capabilities that we are giving Ukraine, that other countries are giving to Ukraine, should be used to take back Ukrainian sovereign territory,” Singh said in a response to a question about Ukrainian requests to lift such restrictions. She further elaborated that such equipment was provided “for use on the battlefield,” which she defined as “within Ukrainian territory.”

Despite British Foreign Secretary David Cameron having stated on May 2 that Kyiv could use British military aid in any way it sees fit, no U.K.-supplied Storm Shadow cruise missiles have hit targets outside Ukraine’s sovereign borders. Similarly, Ukraine has not used French- and Danish-supplied Caesar howitzers to strike at Russian artillery firing across the border from Belgorod.

Not only do the restrictions make no sense militarily, they also make no sense on their own cautiously defined terms.

For one thing, Western weapons have been repeatedly used to strike targets in illegally occupied Crimea, considered for a decade by the Russian government to be “Russian” territory. Indeed, at the start of Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, U.S. officials were reluctant to see Ukraine take the fight to Russians on the peninsula for fear of escalation. By 2023, that red line, like so many others in this war, had faded from pink to white as U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan effectively endorsed strikes on Crimea. “What we have said is that we will not enable Ukraine with U.S. systems, Western systems, to attack Russia. And we believe Crimea is Ukraine,” Sullivan said in an interview with CNN in May 2023. After this dam-break moment, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by issuing an angry press release and summoning U.S. diplomats in Moscow. Nevertheless, Ukrainian attacks on Crimea with U.S. weapons have continued.

Ukraine has since launched everything from Anglo-French cruise missiles to the U.S.-supplied ATACMS at strategic targets on the peninsula. On Sept. 23, 2023, British- and French-supplied cruise missiles destroyed the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol in an operation caught on film by passersby and shared online around the world. A second attack followed just a day later, aimed at the 758th Center for Black Sea Fleet Logistics and Technical Support. Russia’s response to the demolition of the fleet’s headquarters in Sevastopol was to relocate the facility to Novorossiysk, in southern Russia, where Ukraine is now targeting it with homemade drones.

More recently, Ukraine eliminated a battery of Russia’s advanced S-400 air defense system at its Belbek air base in Crimea and reportedly sank the Karakurt-class corvette Tsiklon, the latest in a series of operations that has neutralized more than one-third of the Black Sea Fleet’s naval vessels.

Two years ago, analysts and policymakers were earnestly contending that such sorties might lead to an all-out war between Russia and NATO. Today, they lead to derisive memes on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) lifted from a closing scene in “The Hunt for Red October,” in which a sheepish Soviet ambassador to Washington has to admit to a U.S. official that they have “lost another submarine.”

Further complicating matters is the fact that Ukraine has also been operating U.S.-made military hardware within Russia’s legal borders. Kyiv’s military intelligence service has facilitated repeated incursions of anti-Kremlin Russian proxy forces into Belgorod, a region of Russia northeast of Kharkiv — incursions that at times last for weeks on end and verge on soft occupations. These proxies have driven U.S.-supplied armored fighting vehicles and a number of armored Humvees. Yet these serial violations — all caught on video and easily accessible on the internet — have not only met with continued and expanded U.S. security assistance to Ukraine, they have also been summarily ignored by the Pentagon and White House.

A further contradiction is that American air-to-surface or surface-to-air weapons seem immune from Washington’s legalistic definitions of escalation. For example, AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles, which are outfitted on Ukrainian MiG-29 and Su-27 jets, have repeatedly struck Russian air defense systems inside Belgorod, as footage circulated on social media of fragments of these munitions recovered from Russian territory plainly demonstrates. Then, on May 13, 2023, in a surface-to-air missile attack, a Ukrainian-operated Patriot battery engaged a Russian air group as they were overflying Russian territory, shooting down two jets and two helicopters in quick succession. This marked the first of a number of successful “ambushes” the Ukrainians waged by positioning their Patriot systems in locations the Russians were not expecting.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tacitly admitted to the double standard in what Ukraine is and isn’t allowed to shoot into Russia. When asked at a May 20 Pentagon press conference about U.S.-provided air defense systems being used to down Russian bombers targeting Kharkiv from Russian air space, Austin said, “The aerial dynamics are a little bit different.” He didn’t explain why killing Russian pilots and crew in midflight in Russia is less provocative to Russian President Vladimir Putin than killing Russian artillery operators in Russia. This contradiction could become even starker when the first F-16 fighter jets, presumably equipped with long-range Western air-to-air missiles, start to engage Russian jets before they cross into Ukrainian airspace.

In short, the Biden Administration is expecting Ukraine to fight a war under rules of engagement that the U.S. government would never adopt for itself. And while many criticisms of recent U.S. policy toward Ukraine — most notably over the delay in passing the latest tranche of military assistance — can fairly be blamed on Republican legislative obstructionism, this is a decision that can be laid squarely at the feet of the White House.

A former CIA senior operations officer who worked on Ukraine issues told New Lines, “The factors that go into our calculus are affected by Russian misinformation in terms of their capacity and willingness to retaliate. Letting Ukrainians use our munitions inside Russia will prevent a needless, policy-inflicted loss of Ukrainian lives.”

While U.S. guardrails in this war frequently shift and the president’s “no” eventually becomes “yes,” as it did on ATACMS and F-16s, Ukraine can ill afford to wait. As we write, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, assesses that Russia is again amassing troops on the Ukrainian border, this time in Sudzha, a city northeast of Kharkiv in the Kursk region. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in an interview with Reuters on May 21, confirmed that the situation on the battlefield is “one of the most difficult” Ukraine has faced since February 2022.

If, as expected, Russia opens another axis across the border into Ukraine’s Sumy region, it will again be exploiting artificial protections put in place by Washington to maximum tactical advantage, further stretching Ukrainian reserves and immiserating another civilian population through constant bombardment, evacuation or perhaps brutal occupation.

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