‘One hand tied around the back’: Europe presses US to lift Ukraine weapons limits

BRUSSELS — European allies are ramping up pressure on the Biden administration to further loosen restrictions on Ukraine’s use of U.S. weapons to strike inside Russia, arguing that the limits still in place hurt Kyiv’s ability to defend itself.

Publicly, the U.S. administration says it has not changed its policy, which currently restricts the use of U.S.-provided weapons to Ukrainian soil and the immediate region across the border from the besieged city of Kharkiv. But U.S. officials acknowledge that at multiple points in the conflict, Washington has been reluctant to give Ukraine something it wants — only to give in at the last minute.

“If you look back over the course of the conflict, you can find a number of areas where we were reluctant to do something and then we did it,” said one senior Defense Department official, who was granted anonymity to speak about sensitive conversations. “So never say never.”

The discussions are taking place in Brussels this week, where defense chiefs from around the world gathered for a Thursday meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group and Friday’s NATO defense ministerial. They come weeks after the Biden administration quietly gave Ukraine permission to strike inside Russia — but only across the border near the Kharkiv area, where Moscow has been launching attacks on the northern city.

The pressure on President Joe Biden isn’t coming from only Europe. POLITICO reported on Thursday that a growing number of Democrats are also warming to the idea of loosening restrictions, and are letting the White House know.

If Biden relents, it will be the latest example of the White House’s shifting red lines on the Ukraine conflict, in which the U.S. refuses to provide more advanced weapons — first Himars rockets, then Patriot missile defense systems, then F-16 fighter jets — before reversing course.

Asked about the issue on Thursday in Italy, Biden said he’s not planning on changing his policy.

“It is clear that … just across the … border with Russia and Ukraine, that it makes a lot of sense for Ukraine to be able to take out or combat what is coming across that border,” he said. “In terms of long-range weapons … into the interior of Russia, we have not changed our position on that sort.

Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary general, leaned forward on the issue of restrictions on donated weapons in his public remarks throughout the week. During a Thursday press conference, he said Ukraine’s right to self-defense includes “the right to strike legitimate military targets on the territory of the aggressor, Russia.”

“It would really undermine Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, to uphold the right to self-defense, if it wasn’t possible for them to use weapons to repel those attacks. It would actually be to ask them to defend themselves with one hand tied around the back,” Stoltenberg said. “This is the reason why I also welcome that some Allies have eased the restrictions.”

Similarly, Netherlands Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said on the sidelines of the meeting that Ukraine has to “be able to use weapons, both arms, not one arm tied on their back.” Although she declined to comment on other countries’ policies, she said “I feel we should not restrict Ukraine.”

“I’m telling everybody that this is our policy, and I think it’s a policy that fits the dynamics of the war,” she said.

Estonian Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur echoed those comments, telling POLITICO: “My view is simple — everything we give, should be allowed for Ukrainians to use as they need considering the tactical planning.”

Ukraine has made use of the latest policy change to conduct at least one strike across the border, using U.S.-made Himars rockets to destroy Russian surface-to-air missiles in Belgorod. The shift has allowed Kyiv to blunt Russia’s offensive in the Kharkiv region, which senior U.S. officials worried initially could lead to a significant breakthrough.

“What I see is a slowing of the Russians’ advance and a stabilizing of that particular piece of the front,” said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a Thursday press conference.

“The Ukrainians have done a lot to fortify their defensive positions and are making good use of the weapons and munitions that they’re being provided.”

Senior U.S. officials insist publicly that U.S. policy on the restrictions has not shifted further. Austin stressed that allowing Ukraine to strike into Russian territory was a narrow change intended only for the Kharkiv region.

“Our policy in using long-range strike capabilities to conduct strikes deep into Russia, that’s not changed,” Austin said during the press conference. “The intent of allowing them to conduct counter-fire was to help them address the issue of the Russians conducting staging, or building staging areas just on the other side of the border, and attacking from those staging areas.”

The senior DOD official also noted that the policy shift was in “direct response” to Russia’s strikes on Kharkiv. But the official acknowledged that U.S. policy on Ukraine has been constantly evolving since the beginning of the war.

“There’s always a constant conversation and reassessment of what the right answer is. And I think that’s healthy.”

Adam Cancryn in Italy and Stuart Lau in Brussels contributed to this report.

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