The Pentagon has given its tacit endorsement of Ukrainian attacks inside Russian territory and no longer fears such operations could lead to a “dramatic” Russian escalation, The Times reported on Friday, citing unnamed US defense officials.
The US position appears to only be based on the fact that up to this point, Russia hasn’t responded to attacks on its territory with nuclear weapons or by attacking NATO countries.
The Times report reads: “Moscow’s revenge attacks have to date all involved conventional missile strikes against civilian targets. Previously, the Pentagon was warier of Ukraine attacking Russia because it feared the Kremlin would retaliate either with tactical nuclear weapons or by targeting neighboring NATO nations.”
The report came after Ukrainian drone attacks hit Russian air bases deep inside Russian territory, including one that killed three Russian soldiers and damaged two Russian bombers. Following the attacks, Russian missiles pounded Ukrainian energy infrastructure, worsening the already dire situation for millions of Ukrainian civilians who are without power and heat in freezing temperatures.
Russia didn’t start launching large-scale attacks on Ukrainian energy infrastructure until October, after the truck bombing of the Kerch Bridge, which connects Crimea to the Russian mainland. US officials previously said that they support Ukrainian attacks on Crimea.
The Times report said that the US doesn’t want to publicly give Ukraine the greenlight to attack targets inside Russia. In public comments, US officials have said they are not “encouraging” or “enabling” Ukrainian strikes inside Russian territory. But a US defense official said that it’s up to Ukraine where they attack and that they have limited restrictions on using US-provided weapons.
“We’re not saying to Kyiv, ‘Don’t strike the Russians [in Russia or Crimea].’ We can’t tell them what to do. It’s up to them how they use their weapons,” the official said. “But when they use the weapons we have supplied, the only thing we insist on is that the Ukrainian military conform to the international laws of war and to the Geneva conventions.”
The official’s comments appear to mark a shift in US policy as the Biden administration previously sought “assurances” from Ukraine that it wouldn’t use the HIMARS rocket launch systems to hit Russian territory. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby made similar comments in public last week.
“When we give them a weapon system, it belongs to them, where they use it, how they use it, how much ammunition they use to use that system. I mean, those are Ukrainian decisions, and we respect that,” Kirby said.
So far, there has been no confirmation of Ukraine using US weapons to hit targets inside Russian territory. Russia said Ukraine used modified Soviet-made drones to launch the attacks last week that hit Russian air bases hundreds of miles from the Ukrainian border.
But The Times report said that with the US now tacitly backing Ukrainian attacks inside Russia, the Biden administration will be more likely to provide longer-range weapons that Ukraine has been seeking. “Nothing is off the table,” a senior US official said.
Ukraine has been asking for the Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, which have a range of about 190 miles and can be fired from the HIMARS systems, although The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the US modified the HIMARS it sent to Ukraine so they can’t fire munitions with a range of greater than 50 miles.
While the US might no longer fear escalation, Russian officials have strongly warned against the US sending longer-range weapons to Ukraine. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg acknowledged on Friday that there’s a “real possibility” of a war between the alliance and Russia, which could quickly turn nuclear, but insisted the West should keep arming Ukraine despite the risk.