Ukraine ups pressure on US to allow strikes in Russia: ‘This is insane’

Ukraine’s struggle to fend off Russia’s massive offensive in the Kharkiv region has underscored a pressing issue that Kyiv has long tried to overturn: a ban on firing U.S. weapons to hit inside of Russia.

Russia launched its Kharkiv offensive from the neighboring Belgorod region, and some Ukrainian officials are arguing that the attack could have been blunted if they were allowed to hit targets in that Russian province.

A delegation of five Ukrainian members of parliament traveled to Washington this week to meet with Biden administration officials and congressional lawmakers in a bid to push the U.S. to reverse the ban.

But during a media roundtable event in Washington, the Ukrainian lawmakers expressed palpable frustration that the U.S. is still against the policy.

“It’s like if somebody were to attack Washington, D.C., from the Virginia state, and you say we’re not going to hit Virginia for some reason,” said David Arahamiya, head of a Ukrainian parliamentary group on U.S. relations and the lawmaker who led the delegation this week.

“It’s crazy. Military people, like generals, they don’t understand. So they are pushing us as politicians, like stop [the policy] this is insane.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, during a trip to Kyiv this week, said the U.S. was committed to ensuring Ukraine can win the war against Russia but stressed Kyiv should focus on taking back Ukrainian territory.

“Ukraine has to make decisions for itself about how it’s going to conduct this war, a war it’s conducting in defense of its freedom, of its sovereignty, of its territorial integrity,” Blinken said at a press conference. “We’ve been clear about our own policy.”

Ukraine’s lobbying to get the U.S. to lift the ban comes as Russia has advanced in the northeastern Kharkiv region and is pressuring Ukrainian forces across the 600-mile eastern front.

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a Senate Armed Services Committee member, noted Kyiv is struggling after the U.S. delayed for months before passing a national security supplemental that includes $61 billion to support Ukraine.

But “we have to constantly weigh what we provide, what we allow them to use weapons for, with our desire to make sure that this doesn’t result in a conflict that spreads beyond Ukraine,” he told The Hill.

Speaking on the Russian momentum, Kelly added that Ukraine was rightly trying to “come up with some options on how you turn this thing around.”

Ukraine has long argued its ability to attack legitimate military targets in Russia is vital for its own defense.

In lieu of a policy change, Ukraine has resorted to hitting inside of Russia with its own weapons, including cheap drones that have harassed Russian targets such as oil refineries. The campaign to hit oil refineries with drones has picked up in pace and breadth in recent months.

But Ukrainian officials say there is no substitute for American-made arms such as the missile launcher weapon High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) or valued long-range artillery like the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS).

Maksym Skrypchenko, president of the Ukrainian think tank Transatlantic Dialogue Center, which advises Kyiv, said Russia has moved its command centers inside its own borders, and out of the range of HIMARS.

“And they feel totally safe,” he said in an email. “Imagine how weird this situation is: whenever something goes wrong, Russians can always retreat to their territory, regroup, and start again—Ukraine can’t hit them with effective weapons like ATACMS.”

Skrypchenko said if the ban had been lifted before the Kharkiv offensive, it could have prevented Russia from amassing troops at the border.

“Using weapons like Stingers inside Russia would also help push back Russian frontline bombers dropping guided bombs on frontline cities and Ukrainian defense positions,” he said. “Together with F-16s, it could be a game-changer to stop Russia from advancing in many places.”

Ukrainian member of parliament Oleksandra Ustinova, deputy head of the parliamentary group on relations with the U.S., warned that Kharkiv could become the next Mariupol, the southeastern Ukrainian city that was destroyed in the early days of the war.

“If we do not have permission to shoot Russian weapons sitting at the border right now, we have a huge possibility to lose large cities and the region because they [Russia] know about this restriction,” she said at the roundtable in Washington this week.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) argued in an analysis published earlier this week that the U.S. policy “makes no sense” and is “severely compromising Ukraine’s ability to defend itself” against the Kharkiv offensive.

The U.S. policy is preventing Ukraine from hitting back against the threat from precision-guided glide bombs, which Ukrainian forces have struggled to defeat, wrote George Barros, the Russia team and geospatial intelligence lead for the Russia-Ukraine war at the ISW.

Barros said Russia is leveraging its airspace as a “sanctuary” and that Ukraine cannot effectively defend against glide bomb threats without intercepting Russian aircraft in Russian airspace.

“Neither Russia nor any other state has the right to view its sovereign territory as inviolable in a war of aggression that it has initiated,” he wrote. “Establishing the principle that nuclear-armed states can earn such inviolability through threats of escalation encourages other such potential predators to imagine that they, too, can attack with impunity and demand sanctuary in their own territory.”

Western allies of Ukraine have long feared escalating the war between Ukraine and Russia, particularly as Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapons.

But Skrypchenko, from the Transatlantic Dialogue Center, said Ukraine has repeatedly hit inside of Russia with its own weapons and worked with Russian volunteers to strike targets in the country — all without nuclear escalation.

“So maybe it’s high time we stopped drawing our own red lines and keep letting Russia know about them,” he said. “It’s an existential war for the survival of the Ukrainian people, not just a conflict where parties try to hit several strategic objectives in each other’s territory.”

But with Russia making critical advances across the eastern front, there have been growing calls to do more, including French President Emmanuel Macron floating the idea of sending NATO troops into Ukraine.

U.K. Foreign Secretary David Cameron signaled during a trip to Kyiv earlier this month that London would not stand in the way of Ukraine using British weapons to strike inside of Russia.

In an interview with Reuters, Cameron said “Ukraine has that right.”

“Just as Russia is striking inside Ukraine, you can quite understand why Ukraine feels the need to make sure it’s defending itself,” he said.

But the U.S. has remained firm on sticking to the policy. Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said the U.S. often relays that message to Ukrainian officials.

“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,” she said. “The weapons that are provided, again, are for use on the battlefield.”

John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former ambassador to Ukraine, said the U.S. policy undermines its own objective of making sure Russia does not win the war.

“This is against the geopolitical interests of the United States, and from a humanitarian point of view, it is inexcusable,” he said.

“We crossed numerous, numerous alleged Kremlin red lines without seeing a mushroom cloud. And of course the [British] have told the Ukrainians you can use our weapons wherever you send them … so the red line has already been partly crossed.”

On Capitol Hill, some Republicans want to see Ukraine employ the U.S. weapons as they see fit.

“They should use the weapons to win the war, “said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), also on the committee, said he does “not have a problem with it.”

“If they were actually attacking and destroying civilian targets, it may be a different story,” he said. “But in this particular case, it seems to me that there is no escalation in this. The escalation has already occurred on the part of the Russian army.”

But Democrats are more hesitant to question Biden’s policy.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said she had questions about what weapons Ukraine wants to use and how exactly they would be employed, while calling for assurances first on how other U.S. arms were used like cluster munitions.

“Right now,” she said, ”the restrictions should remain in place.”

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