US holds firm as NATO allies increasingly loosen Ukraine military shackles

Multiple NATO countries have announced publicly that Ukraine can use their military assistance to hit targets inside Russian territory, despite continued hesitation from others.

Ukraine’s allies have provided them with several billions of dollars worth of military aid, but the leaders of those countries have been concerned about the possibility of Russian President Vladimir Putin escalating the conflict. But, the war has increasingly gone in Russia’s favor as they exploited Ukraine’s ammunition and troop shortages after several months without U.S. military support.

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that the U.S. does not “encourage or enable” Ukraine to hit targets inside Russia, but they often caveat the sentiment noting that they let Ukrainian leaders make their own decisions. On Tuesday, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said there’s “no change” in U.S. policy that “We don’t encourage or enable the use of U.S.-supplied weapons to strike inside Russia.”

French President Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly are among Western politicians who have publicly said Ukraine can use their weapons to hit targets in Russia in recent days.

“How can we explain to Ukraine that they need to protect their cities … but that they don’t have the right to attack where the missiles are coming from? It’s as if we were telling them we’re giving you arms, but you cannot use them to defend yourself,” Macron said late Tuesday during a press conference in Germany.

“We believe that we need to be forward leaning on this question. Why? Because Russia has no red line,” Joly explained. “That is why we need to make sure that when it comes to Ukraine’s defense that we’re there to help them and that we show that not withstanding what is happening, that we’re by their side. In Canada, there is no condition on end user shipment of arms to Ukraine.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg argued earlier this week that “The right to self-defense includes hitting legitimate targets outside Ukraine,” while U.K. Foreign Secretary David Cameron said in early May that Ukraine could use British long-range weapons, such as the Storm Shadow cruise missile, to hit back at Russia.

Some European allies have not been as open to the use of their weapons to hit targets in Russia and potentially risk escalation.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a long-term security deal on Tuesday. The deal includes Belgium providing Ukraine with 30 F-16 fighter jets by 2028, though De Croo specified the aid “is to be used in the Ukrainian territory.”

Zelensky called it “unfair,” and added, “But, and this is a fact, we cannot risk the support of our partners. That’s why we’re not using our partners’ arms to attack the Russian territory. That’s why we’re asking please give us the permission to do that.”

Despite the Biden administration’s hesitation, there is a group of U.S. lawmakers, made up of both Democrats and Republicans, who want the U.S. to greenlight Ukrainian use of U.S. weapons against targets in Russian territory.

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“Our Ukrainian allies are requesting permission to use certain weapons provided by the United States to conduct operations on strategic targets inside Russian and Russian-controlled territory,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin earlier this month. “The Biden Administration’s current policy is handcuffing Ukraine’s ability to push back on Russian forces near Kharkiv with U.S.-origin weapons.” 

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the U.S. and NATO have sought to avoid escalating tension with Putin, who has repeatedly issued threats of nuclear escalation.

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