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Biden to allow Ukraine to use U.S. weapons to strike inside Russia

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Dec. 12.  (Yuri Gripas/ABACA)
By David E. Sanger and Edward Wong New York Times

PRAGUE – President Joe Biden, under pressure from his top national security aides and European allies, has authorized Ukraine to conduct limited strikes inside Russia with U.S.-made weapons, opening what could well be a new chapter in the war for Ukraine, U.S. officials said Thursday.

Biden’s decision appears to mark the first time that an American president has authorized limited military attacks on artillery, missile bases and command centers inside the borders of a nuclear-armed adversary. White House officials insisted, however, that the authorization extended only to what they characterized as acts of self-defense, so that Ukraine could protect Kharkiv, its second-largest city, and the surrounding areas in the northeast from relentless fire from missiles, glide bombs and artillery shells from just over the border.

“The president recently directed his team to ensure that Ukraine is able to use U.S.-supplied weapons for counterfire purposes in the Kharkiv region so Ukraine can hit back against Russian forces that are attacking them or preparing to attack them,” a U.S. official said in a statement issued by the administration. “Our policy with respect to prohibiting the use of ATACMS or long-range strikes inside of Russia has not changed,” the statement continued, referring to an artillery system, provided to Ukraine, that has the capability to reach deep inside Russian territory.

Inside the White House, Biden’s deliberations were closely held, known only to a narrow group of aides.

But The New York Times revealed last week that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had come back from a sobering trip to Kyiv and privately told the president that his 27-monthlong ban against shooting American weapons into Russian territory was placing parts of Ukraine in peril.

The Russians, he said, were exploiting the president’s ban and mounting constant attacks from a safe haven just inside the Russian border.

By that time, Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, had also begun changing his view, senior officials said. So had U.S. allies: Britain weeks ago allowed Ukraine to use its Storm Shadow long-range missile systems for attacks anywhere in Russia, and France and Germany recently took the same position. So did Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of NATO.

The decision follows weeks of discussion with the Ukrainians after Russia began a major assault on Kharkiv.

Because Kharkiv is so close to Russia, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine repeatedly pressed Biden and his aides for the right to strike back inside Russia. Biden deflected those requests for months, concerned that using American weapons could escalate the conflict – and put the United States into a direct confrontation with Russia.

When he relented, it was in the most narrowly prescribed way. The permission from Biden is intended solely for Ukraine to strike military sites in Russia being used to attack the Kharkiv area, U.S. officials said. Attacks from Russia in other regions – even near Kyiv, the capital – cannot be answered with the use of American weapons.

A senior U.S. official in Washington said the administration’s policy prohibiting Ukraine from using U.S.-made weapons for “long-range” attacks inside Russia had not changed.

The decision by Biden was reported earlier Thursday by Politico.

The Pentagon is charged with giving Ukraine the exact guidelines of what it can strike in Russia, U.S. officials said. Those have been conveyed by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III to Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, the four-star commander of the U.S. European Command and the supreme allied commander for Europe. It was Cavoli who conveyed the decision to Ukraine, officials said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.