US signals that it has expanded policy to allow Ukraine to counterstrike into Russia

The US appears to have expanded its agreement with Ukraine to strike over the border inside Russian territory wherever Russian forces are engaging in cross-border attacks into Ukraine, not just in the Kharkiv region as was previously determined.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told PBS News on Monday that the agreement with Ukraine to fire into Russia extends wherever Russian forces are attempting to invade.

“It extends to anywhere that Russian forces are coming across the border from the Russian side to the Ukrainian side to try to take additional Ukrainian territory,” Sullivan said, adding that it’s “not about geography. It’s about common sense.”

Pentagon spokesman Maj. Charlie Dietz said in a statement that the US “has agreed to allow Ukraine to fire US-provided weapons into Russia across where Russian forces are coming to attempt to take Ukrainian territory.”

“If Russia is attacking or about to attack from its territory into Ukraine, it only makes sense to allow Ukraine to hit back against the forces that are hitting it from across the border,” Dietz said.

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder insisted on Thursday that there had been no change in policy, which was always meant to allow Ukraine to conduct cross-border counterstrikes where necessary.

But Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin suggested during a press conference last week at a NATO meeting that the policy was limited to the Kharkiv region.

“Ukraine requested permission to conduct counter-fire in the Kharkiv area using US weapons, and President Biden granted them permission to do that…but the ability to conduct counter-fire in this close fight in the Kharkiv region is – is what this is all about.”

The change marks a significant shift in the limited nature of the agreement between the US and Ukraine. President Joe Biden gave Ukraine permission in May to conduct limited strikes inside Russia with US-provided weapons, but restricted it primarily to the border in the Kharkiv region after Russian forces launched a renewed offensive there.

Last week, a senior US Defense Department official left the door open for a change of policy, telling reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels there have been “a number of areas” where the US has given the green light on policies it had previously been reluctant to approve.

“[I]f 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,” the official said. “So F-16s, ATACMS. DPICMS, whatever it is. So there’s always a constant conversation and reassessment of what the right answer is, and I think that’s healthy. So never say never.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also called for allowing Ukraine more flexibility to fire into Russia, saying last week that Ukraine “has the right to strike military targets on Russian territory.”

Stoltenberg was asked specifically about the Ukrainians being allowed to use F-16s to fire into Russian territory or airspace when their training on the jets is complete.

“Russia opened a new front, they opened the front in the north in Kharkiv, where they’re attacking directly from Russian territory just over the border. The border and the front line is more or less the same,” Stoltenberg said. “And of course, if the Russian forces, the artillery, the missile batteries were safe as soon as they were on the Russian side of the border, it would become extremely difficult for Ukrainians to defend themselves.”

“So I’ll not go into every operational aspect of this, but I’ll only say that Ukraine has the right to strike military targets on Russian territory to the right for self-defense, and we have the right to support them in defending themselves,” he said.

The US has said Ukraine is able to use their US-provided air defense systems to shoot Russian planes out of Russian airspace if they are preparing to fire into Ukrainian airspace.

“There’s never been a restriction on the Ukrainians shooting down hostile aircraft, even if those aircraft are not necessarily in Ukrainian airspace,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said this month. “I mean, they can shoot down Russian airplanes that pose an impending threat. And they have. They have since the beginning of the war.”

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