Biden gives Ukraine permission to carry out limited strikes within Russia using US weapons

President Joe Biden has given permission to Ukraine to strike inside Russian territory with American munitions, though he has restricted their use so Kyiv can only hit targets over the border close to Kharkiv after Russia made significant advances around the city in the northeastern part of the country close to the Russian border, two US officials told CNN on Thursday.

“The president recently directed his team to ensure that Ukraine is able to use US supplied-weapons for counterfire purposes in Kharkiv so Ukraine can hit back at Russian forces hitting them or preparing to hit them,” one of the officials said.

The loosening of the restrictions marks a break from long-standing policy and comes amid growing international pressure from close US allies. But it is limited to the area around Kharkiv, and Ukraine has not requested permission beyond that, the official said, adding that they do not anticipate the US widening the area allowed.

On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed the decision had been made following a request from Ukraine.

“Over the past few weeks, Ukraine came to us and asked for the authorization to use weapons that were provided to defend against this aggression” near Kharkiv, “including against Russian forces that are massing on the Russian side of the border,” Blinken said at a news conference in Prague.

The top US diplomat said the request went to Biden, and he approved their use for that purpose.

When asked if the door was open for the US to allow Ukraine to strike further into Russia, Blinken said the US would continue to “adapt and adjust” moving forward.

“We want to make sure that we’re proceeding deliberately, as well as effectively,” he said.

Politico was first to report the news.

Kyiv made the request for Washington to change its policy in just the past few weeks as Russian forces have made their advance, the official said. Russian forces, ammunitions depots and logistical hubs can now be targeted with US-provided artillery and rockets across the border from Kharkiv in western Russia.

The administration is also standing firm in not allowing Ukraine to use the most formidable munition it has been given to fire into Russia: the long-range missiles known as ATACMS that can hit targets 200 miles, or 300 kilometers, away.

Ukraine has been allowed to use US anti-aircraft weapons to take down the imminent threat of Russian aircraft flying in both Ukrainian and Russian airspace and has done so successfully, the first official emphasized. But the prohibition has blocked Ukraine from targeting Russian aircraft that are on the ground inside Russia.

Blinken publicly signaled a willingness to change the administration’s tact this week when he noted that the US could “adapt and adjust” its position.

A hallmark of US support for Ukraine “has been to adapt as the conditions have changed, battlefields change, as what Russia does has changed in terms of how it is pursuing its aggression escalation, we’ve adapted and adjusted too,” Blinken said on Wednesday on a visit to Moldova. “I am confident we will continue to do that.”

The previous day, key European leaders signaled they had shifted position.

Speaking at a news conference alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday, French President Emmanuel Macron outlined that French weapons sent to Ukraine, including long-range missiles, were permitted to target bases inside Russia.

“Ukrainian soil is being attacked from bases in Russia,” Macron said during a visit to Schloss Meseberg in Brandenburg, Germany. “So how do we explain to the Ukrainians that we’re going to have to protect these towns and basically everything we’re seeing around Kharkiv at the moment, if we tell them you are not allowed to hit the point from which the missiles are fired?”

“We think that we should allow them to neutralize the military sites from which the missiles are fired and, basically, the military sites from which Ukraine is attacked,” Macron continued.

Germany’s Scholz echoed Macron’s comments and said that Ukraine was allowed to defend itself as long as it respected the conditions given by the countries that supplied the weapons – including the United States – and international law.

The initial limits preventing Ukraine from firing into Russian territory with US weaponry were rooted in the Biden administration’s concerns about the war escalating. While those concerns remain, the US moved to change position after the Ukrainian government explicitly cited the need to defend Kharkiv, European allies began changing tack and NATO leadership quietly urged the US to allow such strikes.

Blinken visited Ukraine earlier this month and heard firsthand the Ukrainian request to go after targets inside Russia’s border. On that trip Blinken reiterated that the US would make sure to put Ukraine in a “position where it can deter and defend against future attacks.”

“The US is feeling the weight of the argument,” said one European diplomat earlier this week, expecting that a change in US policy might be coming.

In fact, the wheels were already in motion for Biden to amend the US policy when Blinken returned to Washington two weeks ago. According to US officials, the secretary of state signed on to a recommendation that had been made to Biden by national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff C.Q. Brown in the days after Russia launched its offensive on May 10.

On a May 13 secure video conference, the trio had heard appeals from their Ukrainian counterparts and determined that it made sense to lift the US restrictions so Ukrainian forces could hit the staging areas from which Russia was launching its attacks on Kharkiv. The head of US European Command, Gen. Christopher Cavoli, was brought into the conversation to help finalize the details.

But it would take until Thursday for the US decision to work its way through the system and go into effect.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was also quietly urging the US and other nations to give Ukraine the capabilities it needs to go after targets inside Russia, sources said.

Stoltenberg’s repeated efforts behind closed doors did not immediately result in a US policy change. But he made a point this week to publicly speak to the benefit – and perhaps necessity – of allowing Ukraine the defend itself without limits.

“To deny Ukraine the possibility of using these weapons against legitimate military targets on Russian territory makes it very hard for them to defend themselves,” Mr. Stoltenberg said last week.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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