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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Biden Edges Further into Ukraine Conflict with New Arms Decision

President Joe Biden’s decision to relax some restrictions on Ukraine’s use of U.S. weaponry inside Russia marks a small but significant step deeper into the two-year-old war. Experts believe this could help counter Russia’s cross-border Kharkiv offensive.

Since Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Biden’s administration had deemed it too risky to permit Ukraine to strike Russian territory with U.S.-supplied weapons, fearing a major Ukrainian attack could trigger direct conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. This policy aligned with other U.S. restrictions on supplying advanced weaponry to Kyiv, which have also gradually eased, including advanced U.S. fighter jets and long-range ATACM missiles.

Biden administration officials state the latest decision, effective from Thursday, is specifically tailored to the battle in the Kharkiv region. It allows Kyiv to use U.S.-supplied weapons to respond to Russian forces attacking or preparing to attack from across the border. This change permits Ukrainians on the frontlines to use U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers armed with Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) missiles and other weaponry, experts say.

“This can stabilize the frontline and possibly create conditions to push back Russians from the Kharkiv region before they have dug in,” said Mykola Bielieskov, research fellow at the Ukrainian National Institute for Strategic Studies, an official think-tank in Kyiv.

Philip Ingram, a former British military intelligence officer, noted that Biden’s decision will reduce Kyiv’s need to divert troops from critical battlefronts in the eastern Donbas region. “The Russians are now going to find themselves on the back foot and will have to rethink their tactics in their Kharkiv offensive,” he said.

SLOW-CHURN DECISION

Biden’s decision-making process began weeks ago. Ukraine requested the ability to use U.S. weapons across the border in the Kharkiv region during a secure video conference on May 13 with White House National Security Director Jake Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General C.Q. Brown, according to a U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity.

Sullivan, Austin, and Brown developed a recommendation to relax the restrictions, which Sullivan presented to Biden on May 15. Biden agreed that Ukraine should be able to strike back against Russian forces attacking from Russian soil, the official said. The Biden administration had been finalizing the decision since then.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy publicly called for such a step in a May 20 interview with Reuters, but at the time said: “So far, there is nothing positive.”

Also Read: Russian Missile Strikes in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Leave Three Dead

Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program, said Russia had been exploiting Biden’s prohibition on strikes inside Russian territory by using it as a safe haven to launch attacks in the Kharkiv region. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is just 19 miles (30 km) from the border.

“Russia could keep its artillery right across the border. It could keep air defense, electronic warfare, command and control there,” Lee said. “It had a degree of sanctuary.”

Still, Lee and other experts believe this decision alone may not significantly alter the frontlines soon. “I don’t think the decision will change the movement of the frontline that much, if at all. But it will make it more difficult for Russia to continue cross-border operations,” Lee said.

Ingram added that Russia lacks sufficient troops for a major push into Kharkiv. “The Russians don’t have the ability to generate sufficient combat capability to properly threaten Kharkiv from the northeast,” he said. “To do that, it would deplete their troops in eastern combat areas.”

DEEPER STRIKES IN RUSSIA?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned NATO members against allowing Ukraine to fire their weapons into Russia and recently raised the risk of nuclear war. Despite this, Ukraine seems poised to seek expanded use of U.S. weaponry in Russia in the coming weeks and months, particularly after a challenging year in which Russia seized the momentum on the battlefield.

On Friday, less than a day after Washington announced its policy shift, Zelenskiy was quoted in an interview with the Guardian calling for U.S. approval to hit targets deep inside Russian territory.

Mark Cancian, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington, said Biden’s move was just a first step. “It’s not a radical departure in policy. But it’s a step,” Cancian said. “Ukrainians and officials in the administration will argue for the next step: To strike a broader set of targets—maybe targets in Russia that are not directly threatening Kharkiv, but are in other areas.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking on Friday in Prague, declined to say whether the Biden administration could expand its policy to allow strikes elsewhere in Russia but did not rule it out. “Going forward, we’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing, which is as necessary adapt and adjust,” Blinken said.

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