Ukraine can use German weapons against Russian border strikes, Berlin says

Aftermath of a Russian missile attack in Kharkiv

BERLIN (Reuters) -Germany said on Friday that Ukraine could use weapons supplied by Berlin to defend itself against attacks launched from just inside Russia against the Kharkiv region, insisting this did not make it a party to the conflict.

Germany agreed with its allies that Kyiv may use the weapons to defend itself against strikes from positions in the immediately adjacent Russian border area, a government spokesperson said.

"We are jointly convinced that Ukraine has the right, guaranteed under international law, to defend itself against these attacks," the spokesperson said in a statement.

"To do so, it can also use the weapons supplied for this purpose in accordance with its international legal obligations; including those supplied by us."

The comments are the most explicit acknowledgement yet of an apparent quiet shift in German policy, which comes as Moscow is claiming territorial gains in a cross-border offensive on the region surrounding Ukraine's second biggest city, Kharkiv.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday called for every step to be weighed up.

"We must avoid the big war, the war between Russia and NATO," he said at a Catholic Church event in the central state of Thuringia.

"At the same time, we must ensure that Ukraine can defend its independence and sovereignty," he added.

The Berlin statement came after days of scrutiny of Scholz's government over whether such a move would risk Germany being labelled a party to the war, escalating tensions with Russia.

Scholz said last year there was a consensus with Ukraine it would not use Western-supplied weapons to attack targets in Russia.

But he appeared to change tone in a news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, saying Ukraine had "every possibility under international law for what it is doing".

German officials have declined to divulge specifics on how it would like Ukraine to deploy Western-supplied weapons, wary of rhetoric that could ratchet up tensions at a time when Russia is threatening tactical nuclear strikes against Ukraine.

The majority of weapons already delivered to Ukraine by Germany are not suitable for attacks on Russian positions well behind the frontline. Self-propelled howitzers, for example, can engage targets at a distance of up to 56 km (35 miles), but are not deployed in the immediate vicinity of the front.

France, Britain and the United States have supplied Ukraine with weapons with greater target ranges. The city of Kharkiv is 19 miles (30 km) from the border with Russia.

Berlin's statement came a day after U.S. officials suggested President Joe Biden had quietly shifted policy to allow Kyiv to fire U.S.-supplied weapons at military targets inside Russia that are supporting the Kharkiv offensive.

Previously Biden had steadfastly refused to let Ukraine use American weaponry for strikes inside Russia.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Prague on Friday also spoke in favour of Ukraine using weapons provided by Western countries to strike legitimate military targets inside Russian territory.

A Kremlin spokesperson said on Friday that it was already aware of attempts by Ukraine to strike targets on Russian territory with weapons provided by the United States, which is by far the largest arms donor to Kyiv.

(Reporting by Friederike Heine, Matthias Williams, Sarah Marsh, additional reporting by Holger Hansen, Editing by Rachel More, Gareth Jones, Kirsti Knolle, Ros Russell)