Blinken says Ukraine ‘has to make decisions for itself’ about strikes in Russia

President Joe Biden remains hesitant to endorse Ukraine’s use of U.S. weapons to strike Russian forces inside Russia, despite frustration from Ukrainian officials that Moscow’s military strategists are exploiting the restriction.

“We have not encouraged or enabled strikes outside of Ukraine, but ultimately 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,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Wednesday in Kyiv.  “And we will continue to back Ukraine with the equipment that it needs to succeed, that it needs to win.”

Blinken visited Ukraine amid a renewed incursion of Russian forces into Ukraine near Kharkiv, a large Ukrainian border city that was the scene of a major battle in the initial months of the full-scale war. The intensity of the attack forced Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to cancel a trip to Spain and spurred open complaints about U.S. restrictions on the usage of American weapons. 

“We saw their military sitting one or two kilometers from the border inside Russia and there was nothing we could do about that,” senior Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandra Ustinova told Politico this week.  “You’re giving us a stick but you will not let us use it.”

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan emphasized, after Congress passed supplemental legislation authorizing additional military assistance to Ukraine, that the weapons were for “use inside Ukraine’s sovereign territory.” British Foreign Secretary David Cameron argued in early May that “Ukraine has that right” to use British weapons in Russian territory, given the exigencies of the Russian invasion, but Blinken avoided using either his White House colleague or his British counterpart’s language on Wednesday.

“Again, we are determined that Ukraine win this war and succeed for its people and for its future,” he replied when pressed to clarify his original statement. “We’ve been clear about our own policy, but again, these are decisions that Ukraine has to make, Ukraine will make for itself.  And we’re committed to making sure that Ukraine has the equipment it needs to succeed on the battlefield.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba give a joint press conference, in Kyiv on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Blinken sought to reassure Ukraine of continuing American support, announcing a $2 billion arms deal. Most of the money comes from a package approved last month. (Brendan Smialowski/Pool Photo via AP)

Blinken’s characterization of the U.S. policy was interpreted in some Ukrainian circles as a change in policy.

“It’s very good news that when he when Secretary was asked about [these] limitations on the use of American weapons, he said that … in the final analysis, it’s up to Ukraine to decide how to use this weaponry,” Ukrainian foreign affairs committee chairman Oleksandr Merezhko told the Washington Examiner. “Maybe Americans here are following the suit of British in this regard.”

Ukrainian forces have “partially stabilize[d] the situation,” nonetheless, Zelensky announced on Wednesday.

“Over the course of the day our Defense and Security Forces of Ukraine — all units involved — have managed to partially stabilize the situation,” Zelensky said in an evening update. “The occupier, who entered the Kharkiv region, is being destroyed with all available means. Artillery, drones, and our infantry are working quite accurately. I thank all those who are in their positions now.”

Blinken offered his visit to Kyiv as a show of solidarity with the Ukrainian government and society, replete with a Tuesday evening appearance on stage at a bar in the capital city, where the top U.S. diplomat — whose love of music is well-known — joined a local rock band in performing Neil Young’s “Rockin in the Free World.”  That performance punctuated two days of more traditional diplomacy, including the unveiling of “a first-of-its-kind defense enterprise fund” backed by $2 billion of foreign military financing. 

“It has three components: One is to provide weapons today, so this will assist Ukraine in acquiring those weapons,” Blinken said. “Two is to focus as well on…investing in Ukraine’s defense industrial base, helping to strengthen even more its capacity to produce what it needs for itself but also to produce for others. And finally, using this fund to help Ukraine purchase military equipment from other countries, not just the United States, for Ukraine’s use.”


Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba gave Blinken a warm welcome as he acknowledged his U.S. counterpart’s several visits to Ukraine since the earliest weeks of the full-scale invasion, but he also maintained that “there is a perception of the level of corruption and there are facts about the level of corruption,” in an apparent rejoinder to Blinken’s speech on Tuesday. 

“If we were as corrupt as the perception says, they simply wouldn’t be giving us any money; they wouldn’t be opening accession talks with Ukraine to accede the European Union, and the United States wouldn’t have trust in Ukraine,” Kuleba said. “So there are issues which we are addressing together, but I think it will be true to say that since his first day in office, President Zelenskyy — and since the first sessions of the Ukrainian Government and parliament, we’ve been consistently tackling issues of corruption and achieved serious results on this track.”

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