Austin tells CNN granting Ukraine permission to carry out limited strikes on Russian territory will be ‘very, very helpful’

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told CNN Thursday he believed the new policy allowing the Ukrainian military to carry out limited strikes inside Russia with US munitions will be “very, very helpful to the Ukrainians going forward.”

“[W]hat we have done is provided Ukraine the ability to counter fire, to fire back at those Russian troops that are firing at them and to be able to take out their artillery batteries as they’re firing at the Ukrainians,” Austin told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.”

Austin spoke with CNN from Normandy, France, where he has joined other world leaders for the 80th anniversary of D-Day, including President Joe Biden, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, and more than 20 other heads of state including French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Austin’s comments came days after Biden gave Ukraine permission to strike inside Russian territory — though limiting it to targets close to the border of Kharkiv where Russian forces have been concentrating their efforts — with US munitions.

Asked about waning support in the US, Austin said he believed there has been “strong support for Ukraine” among both political parties, despite how long it took for Congress to pass its security aid package for the embattled country and emphasized that Russian President Vladimir Putin likely won’t stop at Ukraine.

“I was confident that the right thing was going to happen, because anytime you see that type of support on both sides of the aisle for a cause, Congress will find a way to get things done. Which is what they did in this case, because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “And Ukraine matters … not just for Ukraine’s purposes alone, not for Europe alone — it matters for to us and it matters to the entire globe. So, we have to make sure that Putin doesn’t have the ability to trample Ukraine because as the president said there’s a good chance, almost certain, that Putin won’t stop there. He will continue to move forward in other acts of aggression.”

On Thursday, Biden gave a blistering critique of Putin, telling ABC News’ David Muir that Putin is “not a decent man, he’s a dictator.”

Standing in the Normandy American Cemetery, Austin told CNN he believed the “number of leaders who lean towards autocracy” around the globe pose the greatest threat to the US, and that the sacrifice so many gave to “ensure our freedom” should never be forgotten.

“[I]t’s those sacrifices that really gave birth to the rules-based international order that served us so well for so many years,” he said. “And we have to protect that — we have to work hard to protect it. Democracy is worth having, but it’s something that you have to work on, you have to fight for.”

‘Hamas does not equal the Palestinian people’

Austin declined on Thursday to comment on an overnight Israeli strike in Gaza on a UN-run school that was housing displaced people, which killed at least 45 people, saying he would “leave it to Israel to talk about what happened in that strike.”

He emphasized though that Israel must take more actions to avoid civilian casualties, and that accomplishing their military objectives and protecting civilians should not be mutually exclusive.

“I think the way you ensure long-term success is by making sure that you take the civilian population, eventually strip them away from Hamas, and demonstrate that Hamas does not equal the Palestinian people,” Austin said.

Asked if he believes Israel has committed war crimes in its operations against Hamas in Gaza, Austin echoed Biden’s comments that it is “uncertain” and should be investigated, which he said Israel would be doing.

“This is a professional force,” he said, “and we would expect they do the kinds of things that professional forces do, you know, make sure they’re doing the right things to employ the weapons appropriately, and also if there are problems, investigate those problems and learn from that.”

So far, Austin said, the US has still not seen Israel begin a “major movement into Rafah.”

US and China must ‘continue to have a dialogue’

Austin also spoke briefly on Thursday about challenges in the Indo-Pacific and his recent meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Adm. Dong Jun, in Singapore.

He reiterated that it is important for the US and China to “continue to have a dialogue” and that he voiced concerns over what is happening in the region. Just two weeks ago, China launched military drills encircling Taiwan after the democratic island swore in a new president.

“I voiced my concerns about some of the things that we’ve seen in the region, and we’ll continue to do so going forward,” Austin said. “But unless you’re talking to each other, you don’t have the ability to prevent miscalculations and address misperceptions. So I think this is a good first step, but there’s a lot more that needs to be done in terms of engaging and in terms of moving things in the right direction.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

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