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Ukraine can use US arms to strike jets over Russia amid West’s red-line confusion

The US and Germany have announced that Ukraine can use the military aid they are supplying to strike enemy jets over Russian territory, amid confusion over the changing conditions attached to weapons supplies.

John Kirby, White House national security spokesperson, said on Tuesday evening there were no restrictions on “shooting down hostile aircraft, even if those aircraft are not necessarily in Ukrainian airspace”, if they “pose an impending threat”.

The position was not part of a recent policy shift to allow Kyiv to strike ground-based targets inside the Russian border, Mr Kirby said, noting that it has been in place throughout the war but not officially communicated.

Ukraine has begun to use US weapons such as Himars rocket launchers in cross-border strikes after receiving permission to do so. Washington has so far only allowed them to be used to defend Kharkiv, in response to Ukraine’s complaints that Russia is using assets inside its borders to target the northern region with impunity.

FILE - A launch truck fires the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) produced by Lockheed Martin during combat training in the high desert of the Yakima Training Center, Washington on May 23, 2011. Ukraine has received about a dozen American-built HIMARS multiple rocket launchers and has used them to strike Russian ammunition depots, which are essential for maintaining Moscow's edge in firepower. (Tony Overman/The Olympian via AP, File)
Ukraine has used US Himars rocket launchers to strike targets in Russian territory over the past week (Photo: Tony Overman/AP)

The chair of the defence committee of the German Bundestag, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, has offered support for Ukraine using donated arms against targets in Russia, including aircraft.

In an interview with German public broadcaster DW, the defence official was asked about potential implications of a Russian jet being shot down with a Western weapon over Russian airspace. “It only means that Russia will have one less plane,” she said.

Berlin has evolved its position in line with Washington’s. But Germany is only known to have supplied weapons to Ukraine capable of reaching Russia’s border regions, such as the Mars rocket launcher, which has a maximum range of about 70km.

Washington and Berlin were among the final holdouts among Ukraine’s supporters against allowing Kyiv to strike targets in Russia. A succession of countries – including the UK, France, Netherlands, Denmark, and Finland – recently authorised this use of their equipment.

This has been qualified in some cases. France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, said last week that Kyiv should be allowed to strike the sources of attacks such as missile launchers and airfields but other targets should remain off limits.

“We should allow [Ukraine] to neutralise military sites from which the missiles are fired,” he said. “But we must not allow Ukraine to hit other targets in Russia, of course civilian targets, or other military targets.”

A Foreign Office spokesperson said in response to an enquiry over British policy: “We have provided Ukraine with military aid on the understanding that it will be used in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. We liaise regularly with the Ukrainian Government, and we are clear that equipment provided by the UK is intended for the defence of Ukraine.”

The Foreign Secretary, David Cameron, said in May that Ukraine “has the right” to strike targets in Russia.

Grant Shapps, the Defence Secretary, said last week: “We do not get into how we would allow targeting of our weapons to be used outside of [Ukraine].”

A uniform approach from partners “would be easier” for Ukraine’s military, said Konrad Muzyka of Polish defence consultancy Rochan, a regular visitor to the front lines.

Mr Muzyka said that most countries have not imposed limits on Ukraine’s use of their weapons, while the US and Germany have maintained ambiguity “as to what restrictions have been placed”.

KHARKIV, UKRAINE - JUNE 03: Ukrainian soldiers from the 13th Brigade of the National Guard fire artillery in their fighting position in the direction of Russian border, as the war between Russia and Ukraine continues, in Kharkiv, Ukraine on June 03, 2024. (Photo by Jose Colon/Anadolu via Getty Images)
Ukrainian soldiers in the Kharkiv region, where the front is said to have ‘stabilised’ (Photo: Jose Colon/Getty)

Mykola Bielieskov, an adviser to Ukraine’s military leadership at Kyiv think-tank, the National Institute for Strategic Studies, says the range of Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS) ammunition supplied for artillery and rocket launchers is a critical factor for holding Russia back from the border.

The US has stocks with a range of up to 90km, but has previously provided shorter-range ammunition, partly to mitigate escalation risks.

The US policy shift may already be bearing fruit if the Russian military is moving weapon systems further back from the front, reducing the threat they pose.

“I doubt that Russia would now place Iskander ballistic missiles within the range of GMLRS,” said Mr Bielieskov.

Dr Kristian Gustafson, Professor of Intelligence and Security Studies at Brunel University in London, believes Ukrainian commanders are “frustrated” by allies’ diverging policies.

“I would imagine there will be diplomatic pressure and discussion to lift restrictions or to harmonise restrictions,” he said.

But the shift among allies towards a greater freedom of operation inside Russia is still a useful development for Ukraine, Dr Gustafson added, noting that if battlefield commanders cannot strike a target with a US or German weapon they are likely to be able to make use of a French or British weapon for the task.

Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, said on Tuesday that the shift could have a significant impact.

“Permission to use Western weapons on the territory of the Russian Federation is a vital decision,” Mr Yermak posted on messaging app Telegram. “This will impact the conduct of the war, planning of counteroffensive actions, and will weaken Russians’ abilities to use their forces in the border areas.”

Mr Zelensky said in a video address that while the Kharkiv front has been “stabilised”, Russia has escalated attacks on the eastern front in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which President Vladimir Putin has said he intends to annex to Russia.

“The majority of the battles and the heaviest attacks are taking place in the Donetsk region,” the Ukrainian leader said. “These are the weeks that will determine the whole summer and, in many ways, this year.”

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