Joe Biden has abruptly changed his public position on allowing Ukraine to use American weapons to attack targets in Russia. Previously, Biden’s policy, to the extent that he’s capable of articulating such a thing, was that American weapons could only be used in areas of Ukraine occupied by Russia. Incongruously, this included Occupied Crimea, which Putin annexed a decade ago, and four other Ukrainian oblasts annexed in 2023.

Advertisement

The Biden administration has quietly given Ukraine permission to strike inside Russia — solely near the area of Kharkiv — using U.S.-provided weapons, three U.S. officials and two other people familiar with the move said Thursday, a major reversal that will help Ukraine to better defend its second-largest city.

“The president recently directed his team to ensure that Ukraine is able to use U.S. weapons for counter-fire purposes in Kharkiv so Ukraine can hit back at Russian forces hitting them or preparing to hit them,” one of the U.S. officials said, adding that the policy of not allowing long-range strikes inside Russia “has not changed.”

The new rules of engagement are that US weapons can target Russian troops, missile launchers, and artillery in Belgorod Oblast to blunt the Russian invasion force aimed at Kharkiv. Russian aircraft in flight are also fair game, but shades of LBJ and Vietnam, Russian aircraft lined up wingtip-to-wingtip on the runway preparing to bomb Ukraine are off limits.

This change reflects the culmination of a lengthy debate inside White House policy circles. And by debate, I mean an absolute route as the political sands under Biden drifted away.


BACKGROUND: Biden White House Establishes Sanctuaries for Russian Forces Attacking Ukraine; Does This Sound Familiar?


It was decided more by the risk of being left alone holding an indefensible position than by any geostrategic calculus.

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.

Advertisement

Just to give you an idea of how fast this train is moving, the day before Scholz said Ukraine should be able to use German weapons against targets in Russia, Scholz stood beside Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and said the opposite.

The New York Times reported on the internal debate on Wednesday.

Now, after months of complaints about the restrictions from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, the White House has begun a formal — and apparently rapid — reassessment of whether to take the risk. Approving further uses of U.S. weapons would give Kyiv a way to conduct counterattacks on artillery and missile sites that now enjoy something of a safe haven just inside Russia.

On Wednesday, in Moldova, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken became the first administration official to publicly leave open the possibility that the Biden administration might “adapt and adjust” its stance about attacking inside Russia with American weapons, based on changing battlefield conditions.

“We’re always making determinations about what’s necessary to make sure that Ukraine can effectively continue to defend itself,” Mr. Blinken said.

As I pointed out in my last Ukraine Update, Jake Sullivan was under attack from all corners over the policy. Even NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was open in his opposition to what passed for a Biden policy. By my count, at least a dozen nations have given Ukraine the green light to use their weapons against targets in Russia.

Advertisement


BACKGROUND: Putin’s War, Week 117. Jake Sullivan Under Fire, ATACMS Everywhere, and the Stalemate Continues


The new policy does this to the north Ukraine battlespace.

The map includes markings for four Russian aircraft that were shot down in a Patriot ambush in May 2023. When Ukraine did this, the White House threatened to cancel arms sales to Ukraine if the episode was repeated.


BACKGROUND:  Four Russian Aircraft Were Shot Down Over Russia in a Couple of Minutes and No One Is Giving Straight Answers.


If Ukraine is permitted to use all Western systems against any target in Russia, this is what the new battlespace looks like.

Putin is promising grave consequences. 

Advertisement

But, of course, it is a day ending in “y.”

If this war is to be brought to a just conclusion, Russia must be forced to evacuate Occupied Ukraine (Crimea is on the bubble). To do that, Russian military assets in Russia must be attacked. Allowing Russia to fire artillery and launch missiles and bombers from within a sanctuary zone is one of the more stupid ideas Jake Sullivan has ever come up with.