A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 30, 2024

US Signals Supporting Growing EU Consensus On Ukraine Strikes Inside Russia

The US appears to be very close to changing its stance and permitting Ukraine to use US - supplied weapons to attack Russian military targets inside Russia but relatively close to its border with Ukraine. 

The consensus among NATO and other western allies is that such prohibitions have given Russia an unfair advantage which must now be reduced if the axis of dictatorships which includes Russia, China, Iran and North Korea is to be stopped. JL

David Sanger reports in the New York Times:

The White House has begun a formal - and rapid - reassessment of whether to approve further uses of U.S. weapons to give Kyiv a way to conduct counterattacks on sites that now enjoy a safe haven just inside Russia. On Wednesday, in Moldova, Secretary of State Blinken became the first administration official to publicly leave open the possibility that the Biden administration might “adapt and adjust” its stance about attacking inside Russia with American weapons. “There has not been blowback against other NATO countries, such as the U.K., whose weapons Ukraine is using to strike targets in Russia. And Putin’s threats of escalation have been hollow.”

President Biden is edging toward what may prove to be one of his most consequential decisions in the Ukraine war: whether to reverse his ban on shooting American weapons into Russian territory.

He has long resisted authorizing Ukraine to use U.S. weapons inside Russia because of concern it could escalate into a direct American confrontation with a nuclear-armed adversary.

Now, after months of complaints about the restrictions from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, the White House has begun a formal — and apparently rapid — reassessment of whether to take the risk. Approving further uses of U.S. weapons would give Kyiv a way to conduct counterattacks on artillery and missile sites that now enjoy something of a safe haven just inside Russia.

On Wednesday, in Moldova, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken became the first administration official to publicly leave open the possibility that the Biden administration might “adapt and adjust” its stance about attacking inside Russia with American weapons, based on changing battlefield conditions.

“We’re always making determinations about what’s necessary to make sure that Ukraine can effectively continue to defend itself,” Mr. Blinken said.

His statement was the latest amid a drumbeat of calls for a shift, from allies and from within Mr. Biden’s administration. Mr. Blinken, who returned from a sobering trip to Kyiv earlier this month, reported to the president that the Ukrainians might not be able to hold the territory between Kharkiv and the Russian border unless Mr. Biden reversed himself. That earlier warning was conveyed privately, in keeping with Mr. Biden’s deep aversion to letting debates among his inner circle leak out and create pressure on him to shift strategy.

Even before Mr. Blinken spoke publicly on Wednesday, Mr. Biden was coming under enormous pressure from his allies. The usually cautious outgoing leader of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, told The Economist in an interview published late last week that Ukraine’s losses of territory near Kharkiv could only be countered if Ukraine was free to take out artillery and missile launchers and command posts on the Russian side of the border.

“To deny Ukraine the possibility of using these weapons against legitimate military targets on Russian territory makes it very hard for them to defend themselves,” Mr. Stoltenberg said. On Tuesday, the leaders of France and Germany joined that chorus. Britain already allows its weapons to be fired at military targets inside Russia.

So far Mr. Biden himself has remained silent, as he often does when faced with a major policy decision that is the subject of complex debate within the White House. His national security aides are running what one called “a very brisk process” to make a formal recommendation to the president, knowing that momentum in the war has been shifting to Russia.

Some of his advisers — refusing to speak on the record about a debate inside the White House — say they believe a reversal of his position is inevitable. But if the president does change his view, it will most likely come with severe restrictions on how the Ukrainians could use American-provided arms, limiting them to military targets, just inside Russia’s borders, that are involved in attacks on Ukraine.

Mr. Biden would likely retain the ban on using U.S. weapons to strike deep inside Russian territory, or at critical infrastructure. On that point he has some allied support: Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany has refused to provide Ukraine with the German “Taurus” long-range missile system, for fear it could reach Moscow.

Mr. Biden does not have much time. In two weeks, he begins a month of intensive face-to-face meetings with his key allies, first at the 80th anniversary of D-Day, then at a meeting of the G7 nations and finally at a celebration, in Washington, of the creation of NATO 75 years ago. At all of these appearances, projecting unity will be critical.

But if Mr. Biden reverses course, officials concede he most likely will never announce it: Instead, American artillery shells and missiles will just start landing on Russian military targets.

Mr. Biden’s two mandates in the war — don’t let Russia win and don’t risk starting World War III — have always been in tension with each other. But in the 27 months since Russia’s invasion, the need to choose between the possibility of Ukrainian defeat and direct involvement on attacks on the territory of a nuclear superpower have never been as stark.

The Kremlin, eager to make the choice harder, has leaned heavily into the narrative that the president is risking escalation. Last week, it ran a series of exercises over how to move and use its large arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons.

After Mr. Stoltenberg’s statement to The Economist, the Kremlin’s top spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that “NATO is flirting with military rhetoric and falling into military ecstasy,” and that the Russian military knew how to respond. Asked if the Western alliance was nearing a direct confrontation with Russia, he said: “They are not getting close; they are in it.”

American officials are increasingly dismissing such warnings as empty. Russia, they note, has never taken the risk of attacking the supply of weapons to Ukraine in Poland or elsewhere in NATO territory. President Vladimir V. Putin has done everything he could to avoid direct conflict with the Western alliance, even while showing off his nuclear capabilities or warning, as Mr. Peskov does regularly, that the West was risking turning a regional conflict into World War III.

“Putin is rattling the nuclear saber to keep Biden from letting U.S. weapons be used to counterattack,” Joseph S. Nye, a former American military official and leader of the National Intelligence Council, said on Tuesday. Mr. Nye, an emeritus professor at Harvard, noted that “what you have happening is a nuclear bargaining game, and a credibility game.”

“Putin has higher stakes in this one, and he will push hard to make Biden swerve first,” he added.

That has been true since the first days of the war, when Mr. Putin ordered nuclear forces to be placed on alert, in an effort to keep NATO from helping Ukraine after the invasion. But after repeated threats from Mr. Putin that he might make use of nuclear weapons, Mr. Biden’s aides seem less and less impressed by the Russian president’s declarations.

Seth G. Jones, a former U.S. military official who leads the international security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that after a recent trip to Kyiv he concluded that “worries about Ukraine using U.S. weapons to strike war-related targets on Russian territory are misplaced.”

“Ukraine has a legitimate military need to weaken Russia’s ability to wage war,” he said, including striking its oil production facilities and power plants. “The United States did the same thing in Germany and Japan during World War II.”

Mr. Jones added that fears about Russian escalation were “overblown.”

“There has not been blowback against other NATO countries, such as the U.K., whose weapons Ukraine is using to strike targets in Russia,” he said. “And Putin’s threats of escalations since the war began have been hollow.”

But there remains considerable unease inside the Biden administration over the possibility of nuclear escalation. One senior administration official said that Washington had conveyed concern to Mr. Zelensky’s government about strikes against nuclear early-warning radar systems inside Russia in recent weeks.

To conduct the attacks, the Ukrainians used locally produced drones and missiles. But American officials voiced concerns that Moscow could misperceive Western intentions, and told Ukraine they consider the maintenance of early-warning systems to be critical to nuclear stability.


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