Updated May 31, 2024 - World

U.S., allies to let Ukraine strike Russia with Western arms despite Putin threats

A HIMARS launches in service of Ukrainian army launching a missile rocket in 2023 from an unspecified location in Ukraine.

A HIMARS in service of the Ukrainian army launching a rocket in 2023 from an unspecified location in Ukraine. Photo: Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

Most Western leaders have now given Ukraine permission to use advanced long-ranged weapons they've provided to strike targets in Russia, fulfilling a request Kyiv asked for weeks ago.

Why it matters: The move greatly increases Ukraine's ability to defend itself against Russia's ongoing, unprovoked invasion, as Russia has exploited the West's embargo by organizing troops and equipment near Ukraine's border but out of range of more traditional weapons.

  • Western leaders previously refused such strikes over fears that they could escalate the invasion.

The latest: President Biden in recent days has given Ukraine permission to use American weapons to strike select targets in Russia, primarily to defend Kharkiv, its second-largest city, Politico first reported on Thursday.

  • Ukraine can now use American weapons to intercept projectiles over Russia, hit Russian troops just over the Russian border or down Russian bombers launching weapons toward Ukrainian territory.
  • The U.S. policy prohibiting long-range strikes deep inside Russia has not changed, officials said.

What they're saying: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Biden for the policy shift on social media Friday, saying it "will allow us now to better protect Ukraine and Ukrainians from Russian terror and attempts to expand the war."

  • "We must continue to take exactly such steps, decisive and effective, in order to ensure the democratic world's strategic advantage in this confrontation, in which not only Ukraine's fate is being determined," Zelensky said.

Context: Critics of the restriction said it recently hindered Kyiv's capacity to pre-empt Russia's offensive in Ukraine's northern Kharkiv region earlier this month.

  • While Ukraine has been unable to use a portion of its arsenal against targets in Russian territory, Moscow has been relentlessly bombarding Ukrainian civilian and military targets with missiles, glide bombs, Iranian-produced drones and North Korean ballistic missiles.
  • Kyiv has made strikes in Russian territory before, including an ongoing extensive drone campaign against Russian oil infrastructure, but such attacks have used weapons produced in Ukraine.

The big picture: The U.K.'s Foreign Secretary David Cameron insinuated on May 3 that Ukraine had the right to strike targets on Russian territory, though he didn't outright endorse the idea of British weapons being used to do so.

  • However, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday the U.K. has given Ukraine "Storm Shadow cruise missiles for a long time without any restrictions."
  • After Stoltenberg said on May 24 members of the alliance should allow Ukraine to conduct such attacks, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz publicly backed the strikes on May 28.

Zoom out: U.S. HIMARS and ATACMS, U.K. and French Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG missiles, and other long-ranged weapons could be used to strike deep into Russian territory.

  • Though Germany allowed Ukraine to conduct strikes with German weaponry, Scholz has so far refused to give Kyiv long-ranged Taurus missiles, one of the most-advanced weapon systems used by the German military.
  • However, Berlin has provided Ukraine rocket systems and self-propelled howitzers that could conduct attacks in Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West on Tuesday against allowing such strikes while making vague threats of a "global conflict."

  • Putin and the Kremlin have made similar threats in the past over Ukraine receiving Storm Shadows, anti-tank missiles and other weapons, but Moscow did not significantly escalate its war.
  • Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Friday Moscow was "aware" of Ukrainian attempts to use U.S. weapons to strike inside Russia but he did not detail his assertions or reference any evidence, according to Reuters.

Between the lines: It's currently unclear what realistic escalatory options Russia has, according to the RAND Corporation.

  • With its weapons and equipment stockpiles significantly affected by its war in Ukraine, it may not be in a position to expand the conflict to another country, especially a member of NATO.
  • And if it followed through with its threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, it risks alienating China, which has repeatedly warned that nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought.

Go deeper: What to know about the long-range missiles the U.S. quietly gave Ukraine

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