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Why did US hesitate to allow Ukraine to hit Russia with American weapons?

by Joseph O’Sullivan June 7, 2024 1:10 AM 7 min read
A group of F-16 aircraft is seen during a flyby over Nationals Park stadium in Washington, DC, on March 30, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds /AFP via Getty Images)
by Joseph O’Sullivan June 7, 2024 1:10 AM 7 min read
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As U.S. President Joe Biden sought to avoid escalation with Russia over military aid to Ukraine, the American government delayed the supply of tanks, ATACMS missiles and the delivery of F-16 jets to Ukraine – and broadly restricted the use of American-provided weapons on Russian territory and airspace.

But in recent weeks, U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, a longtime member of U.S. Congress, watched from America as Russian bombs and missiles slammed into Kharkiv while the aggressor nation also conducted tactical nuclear weapons drills. For Larsen, a Democrat from Washington state and a member of NATO’s parliamentary assembly, the situation put a twist on escalation.

“On this particular issue, in terms of recognizing this is a full-scale war, the president’s concerned about escalation when Russia’s already escalated,” Larsen said in an interview last week. The congressman had just returned to America from a NATO meeting in Bulgaria where he presented a draft report on the state of the war.

Russian ruler Vladimir Putin’s talk of using tactical nuclear weapons is “an escalation in rhetoric,” added Larsen. “In order to really make it look like just bombing the hell out of critical infrastructure in Ukraine isn’t escalation.”

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) speaks during a hearing before the House Committee on Rules on H.R. 3935 at the Capitol in Washington, DC, USA on July 17, 2023. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Larsen is one of 13 American lawmakers who recently signed a letter calling on the Biden administration to lift restrictions on American-provided weapons to Ukraine. On May 30, media reported that Biden had lifted some restrictions on American weapons for Ukrainians to use around Kharkiv in self-defense. The same was later confirmed by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s spokesman in a comment to the Kyiv Independent.

In a statement after the news became public, Larsen said the president had made the right call.

“I hope it is a timely one,” he added. “I hope the U.S. policy continues to be flexible enough to respond to conditions on the ground to allow Ukrainians to fight against Putin’s unjustified invasion.”

The lifting of some restrictions comes after a vocal push in recent weeks by leaders across Europe and NATO’s parliamentary assembly, pressing America to allow for Ukraine to defend itself by striking Russian territory. Meanwhile, as the world watched Russia’s latest assault on Ukraine’s second-largest city, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers also pressed the Biden administration to change course.

In a hearing late last month, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pressed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the restrictions. Describing the attacks on Kharkiv, McCaul pointed out that Congress did not place restrictions on American weapons when it approved Ukraine’s military aid package last month.

“By prohibiting Ukraine from striking Russian territory and Russian airspace, the Biden administration has provided the Putin regime with a sanctuary from which it can kill Ukrainians at will,” McCaul said in a statement to the Kyiv Independent shortly before the rollback was announced.

Biden’s decision is already being critiqued as not enough. In a statement after reports that some restrictions had been lifted, McCaul and two other House Republicans called the move another one of the president’s “half-measures” concerning the war.

“To win this war of self-defense against Russia’s aggression, Ukraine must be allowed to use U.S.-provided weapons against any legitimate military targets in Russia, not just along the border near Kharkiv,” added the statement. “Once again, President Biden’s policy of slow walking and half-measures is dragging out this conflict without providing Ukraine with a decisive advantage on the battlefield to force Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table as soon as possible.”

A Netherlands' Air Force F-16 jetfighter takes part in the NATO exercise as part of the NATO Air Policing mission, in Alliance members' sovereign airspace on July 4, 2023. (John Thys / AFP via Getty Images)

Fears of escalation

As the war grinds on, some researchers and analysts have questioned the effectiveness of Biden’s approach to managing escalation with Russia.

The Biden administration has had “a theory of the case that striking valid military targets inside Russia will lead to still further escalation,” said Tom Karako, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C.

“But just because it is a theory does not mean that it is an especially good theory,” Karako wrote in an emailed comment last month. “An alternative approach would recognize that failing to bring the fight to Russia and to dismantle their means of continuing their aggression is simply an invitation to further aggression.”

“While there may be good reasons to prioritize certain militarily-relevant targets over others, merely excluding the targets because they are in Russia is not especially persuasive,” he added.

The Institute for the Study of War recently produced a report concluding that Russian aircraft can strike at least 2,480 settlements in northern Ukrainian without needing to leave Russian airspace.

Meanwhile, the restrictions have shielded about 1,750 square kilometers of Russian territory known to be used by the Russian military and paramilitary security services from weapons like ATACMS and HIMARS, according to the report. That swath of land includes “hundreds of known military objects” including ammunition and fuel depots, command posts, radar bases and airfields, among other targets.

"Ukrainian forces likely can significantly disrupt Russian operations at scale provided the elimination of the sanctuary and enough rocket artillery ammunition to strike such legitimate targets," the report concluded.

Kateryna Stepanenko, an analyst and the Russia deputy team lead at the Institute, said the weapons restrictions were “severely compromising Ukraine’s ability to defend itself.”

She described Putin’s approach to the United States and Europe as reflexive control, a tactic where Russia attempts to influence the actions of the west by “manipulating our fears to a battlefield advantage.”

“We’re seeing Putin playing into this by launching into tactical nuclear exercises,” she said in an interview shortly before the lift on some restrictions was reported. She added that Russians have conducted information operations targeting Western centers of gravity like London, Brussels, Paris, and Washington, D.C.

US President Joe Biden speaks about the Senate passage of war aid for Ukraine in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Feb. 13, 2024. (Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)

Concerns about escalation have slowed down American help to Ukraine, said U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Himes and Larsen – who also serves on the committee – were two of 13 American lawmakers who signed a letter last month asking the Biden administration to lift some weapons restrictions.

“I say this acknowledging that the White House has very serious concerns around what Russia would perceive as escalation,” Himes said in an interview shortly before the Biden administration’s changes were reported. “I think that we have just about always been too late.”

“I don’t think the Russians are going to use a tactical nuke, I think the Chinese are pretty clear about what would happen if they did,” added Himes, who is a Democrat from Connecticut. “I don’t believe there’s any chance at all that Vladimir Putin would strike NATO territory or assets, because he would get his ass kicked.”

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What’s next?

With many restrictions still in place and new dynamics on the horizon, such as the arrival in Ukraine of F-16 jets, the debate over restrictions will continue. On June 2, President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the U.S. to let Ukraine hit Russian territory with American-provided ATACMS missiles.

Stepanenko, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, wrote in an emailed comment that the change will help blunt Russia’s latest attacks in Kharkiv Oblast.

“But it preserves the majority of Russia’s sanctuary space that Ukraine needs to undermine to defeat the Russian ground and air threats,” wrote Stepanenko. “The policy still sufficiently protects Russia’s operational and deep rear and is insufficient to bring about a turning point in the war.”

She also called for Ukraine’s impending F-16 jets to be able to fire on “Russian aircraft launching glide bombs from Russian airspace.”

Himes said he was comfortable eliminating many restrictions on American weapons, as long as Ukrainian officials used them in consultation with America.

“F-16s are probably an example of something where I want Ukrainians to seek advice and consent,” Himes said, pointing out the jets’ ability as both a defensive and offensive weapon.

“No, I don’t want an F-16 flying 500 miles into Russia,” said Himes, who again referenced America’s delay in supplying aid, in this case for aircraft. “But we’re not even there yet, because Ukrainians aren’t flying yet.”

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