Should Ukraine attack Russian territory with western weapons? The debate in NATO is shifting.

Military experts believe that the US policy prohibiting Ukraine from using American weaponry to attack targets inside Russia is giving the invader an important advantage as it develops its recent offensive in the northern Kharkiv region.

The latest offensive began on May 10, but Kharkiv itself – Ukraine’s second-largest city – has come under daily missile attack since the full-scale war began in February 2022.


This article is the opinion of the author (Christopher Morris, University of Portsmouth) and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.


The city of about 1.4 million people, now crowded with refugees from the surrounding towns and villages, has become something of a symbol of continuing Ukrainian resistance.

Being able to use the powerful, long-range weapons supplied by its western allies would allow Ukraine to strike at targets across the border in Russia. This would help Kyiv’s military planners shape the wider battlefield in their favour. As it stands, Russia can mass forces and supplies in relative safety as its key infrastructure, such as air bases and supply depots, lie just across the border.

Washington has always been adamant that Ukraine mustn’t use its weapons to target Russia. But there are reports that the State Department is pushing for a change in light of the fresh offensive in the Kharkiv region.

On a visit to Kyiv on May 15, US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, implied that the time might be right to allow Ukraine to use US weapon systems to strike at targets across the border, saying: “We have not encouraged or enabled strikes outside of Ukraine, but ultimately Ukraine has to make decisions for itself about how it’s going to conduct this war.”

There has been no official policy shift, but the removal of this limitation on Kyiv’s use of US weapons systems would mark a significant moment in the conflict. Despite all the setbacks of the past year, Kyiv has largely adhered to this rule, mindful that serious violations could curb foreign support.

Several of Ukraine’s allies have given the green light for Kyiv to use their weapon systems within Russian territory. The UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, recently said during a visit to Kyiv that Ukraine “absolutely has the right to strike back at Russia.” It appears that France is poised to follow suit.

Ukraine has already conducted strikes deep within Russia using its own weapons, including basic drones, which have significantly hampered Russian fuel production and even targeted Moscow. But it has limited resources. Using western-made systems would allow Ukraine to increase the tempo of these attacks, potentially limiting Russia’s ability to commit to offensives.

Map showing Russian bases on the Ukrainian border.
Russia’s ‘sanctuary’: Moscow has taken advantage of US prohibition against using its weapons across the border to mass military bases and airfields close to its fresh offensive in Kharkiv. Institute for the Study of War

Strikes by Ukraine have already begun to disrupt the Russian rear. If US weapons systems were approved for use against targets in Russia, then the Russian interior would no longer be safe. Importantly, it could force Moscow to pull Russian air defence and strike aircraft away from the frontlines to defend critical infrastructure.

Still, a potential expansion of how this aid can be used, including striking targets within Russia, raises several important considerations.

Ultimately, allowing Ukraine to use western weapons against targets in Russia is not guaranteed to shift the overall strategic balance greatly. It will disrupt Russian supply lines, command structures and logistical hubs, thereby reducing the effectiveness of Russian military operations in Ukraine. But it will not fundamentally alter the balance of power.

Weapons such as the high mobility artillery rocket systems (Himars) are effective enough, but they are unlikely to alter the essential arithmetic at play in what has become a brutal war of attrition. Successive mobilisations have seen Russian forces increased by 15% since the war’s outset. These raw numbers are difficult for Ukraine to match.

Ukraine is struggling with recruitment and its economy is flagging. Unless Kyiv and its allies can fundamentally shift the character of this conflict, the outlook is not good. At present, Putin is content to grind down Ukrainian resistance and wait for western backing to diminish.

In this regard, the upcoming US election will be a key moment. Another Trump presidency could see Washington refocus on domestic issues, perhaps even cutting the supply of military aid.

Potential for escalation

But the use of western weapons to strike Russian territory would have significant geopolitical implications. It could lead to increased tensions between Russia and the Nato countries supplying the weapons. The risk of escalation, including the possibility of Russia retaliating against Nato members, is a serious concern, particularly given Vladimir Putin’s repeated use of nuclear threats aimed to stoke western fears.

The potential for miscalculation and unintended consequences cannot be overlooked. Striking Russian territory could provoke a strong and possibly unpredictable response from Russia. The Kremlin’s nuclear threats, while often considered bluster, cannot be entirely dismissed, especially if they choose perceive direct attacks on their homeland as an existential threat. Russian military doctrine allows the use of nuclear weapons if this is the case.

The debate over whether to permit Ukrainian use of western military aid to strike Russian territory involves a complex interplay of military strategy and geopolitical considerations. While such a move could provide significant tactical advantages to Ukraine, it will not fundamentally alter the overall strategic picture. It also carries substantial risks that must be carefully weighed.

The evolving nature of this conflict requires continuous assessment and a cautious approach to ensure that the actions taken contribute to a sustainable and just resolution without escalating into a broader, more devastating war.The Conversation

Christopher Morris, Teaching Fellow, School of Strategy, Marketing and Innovation, University of Portsmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Graham Moore
Graham Moore (@guest_823500)
1 month ago

No need for a ‘debate in NATO’. This issue seems to be up to individual nations supplying weapons. Cameron said publicly on 3 May that Ukraine could use Brit supplied weapons to hit targets inside Russia – and this was probably said privately a very long time ago.

Marked
Marked (@guest_823509)
1 month ago

Of course they should!

Rob N
Rob N (@guest_823527)
1 month ago

Yes they are at war – you cannot give them weapons then ask them not to use them on key targets. It is like asking them to fight with one hand tied behind their back. As for escalation the Russian bluff has been called so many times it is now meaningless. The only people who do not wish to upset Russia is Germany, who secretly hopes the war will stop soon so they can buy their cheep oil and gas. It is good that Ukraine is now hitting Russia to diminish its capability to make war. We did the same… Read more »

lordtemplar
lordtemplar (@guest_823533)
1 month ago

so Russia should be able to strike Ukranian territory with total impunity?
there should never have been any such restrictions on use of western weapons. Russia started this mess and the gloves are off.

Bill
Bill (@guest_823535)
1 month ago

Russia attacks Ukraine with Iranian and North Korean missiles – what is the difference?

PeriWhyte
PeriWhyte (@guest_823539)
1 month ago

I am ex army. War is boring. If we all agreed about that then we would be looking for ways to end this hugely costly exercise in futility. Ukraine militias were stridently nationalistic in the Donbas region back in 2014 ,eight years before the invasion. This didn’t happen overnight. Essentially the war has being going on for 8 years not 2. NATO should be looking to secure ways to get an end to hostilities not ways to escalate it.

Jonno
Jonno (@guest_823546)
1 month ago

I think ‘we should only drop leaflets on Russia’ BS is just that. We should ramp up production and allow them freedom to act as they see fit.
In the Korean War; the Russians had their pilots flying MIG 15’s against the UN authorised USAF. People forget this.

Michael Hannah
Michael Hannah (@guest_823559)
1 month ago

Absolutely YES!!
We expect Ukraine to win but handicap them by restricting what they can or cannot do.
As long as it is a legitimate military target, they should have carte blanc!!

Geoff Roach
Geoff Roach (@guest_823562)
1 month ago

Yes. At the very least the Ukraine could announce a war zone. similar maybe to our exclusion zone in the Falklands. Anything military moving towards Ukraine inside a 100 mile (?) zone is fair game.

Gaz
Gaz (@guest_824543)
1 month ago
Reply to  Geoff Roach

No. Russia invaded their country, they are at war, any legitimate target inside Russia should not be counted out, it is well within Ukraines right to strike back because that is exactly what Russia has done to them.

Geoff Roach
Geoff Roach (@guest_827891)
1 month ago
Reply to  Gaz

No real argument Gaz. I was just thinking it could be a warning stage.

Jacko
Jacko (@guest_823563)
1 month ago

Really why is this even an issue? This policy has cost SO many lives and damage to Ukraine it’s unbelievable!😡

Jonny
Jonny (@guest_823574)
1 month ago

I am happy that this is one of the few issues that every part of the political spectrum in this country can agree on. Stop making Ukraine fight with their arms tied behind their back! Could you imagine if we were in a similar position and we were told we couldn’t strike the enemy country? Ludicrous…

Ernest
Ernest (@guest_823582)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonny

Nobody has said Ukraine can’t fire weapons into Russia – Just not weapons they have been given. If it was certain Ukraine would win firing into Russia, fair enough. But whatever I doubt Ukraine will win in the long run. What next. we send troops?

Jonny
Jonny (@guest_823589)
1 month ago
Reply to  Ernest

Allowing Ukraine to use western weapons is not the same as sending troops, this is just one of the many lies spread by Putin.

Ernest
Ernest (@guest_823611)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonny

Maybe not. The US has not approved their weapons to be used against Russian territory Who knows how and I think Germany the same. Lor Cameron should realsie we have just 159 avaiable tanks – Smallest Army ever – We should not mess allowing our missiles to strike Russia alone. Who knows how this will pan out, we are safe on our island uless nukes are used. The only way we should allow our missiles to stile at Russia is if US/Germany/France and Italy do the same. I don’t know what les Putin has spread and would not put anything… Read more »

Paul T
Paul T (@guest_823854)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonny

You need to check your sources – the idea of foreign troops being sent to fight in Ukraine is not coming from Putin ,its coming from Western Politicians,Macron and Stoltenberg being the obvious ones.

Simmo2003
Simmo2003 (@guest_823575)
1 month ago

Let Ukraine use the weopons supplied to them as they see fit. Possibly more weopons should be made available in line with the lend lease agreements of WW2 where Russia benefited from the USA and others to defeat German invaders and tyranny. Putins invasion and tyranny should not suceed.

Cj
Cj (@guest_823583)
1 month ago

To be honest it’s been embarrassing watching Russia tell us what we can and can’t do, they can get weapons from anywhere and fire them at Ukraine but Ukraine isn’t allowed to hit Russia with our gear, have to say WHAT THE F#@K is that about and there’s been people on here that agreed with it🤔??

Lonpfrb
Lonpfrb (@guest_823656)
1 month ago
Reply to  Cj

General Ben Hodges has been clear that telling the Crimlin what we won’t do is bad because it removes strategic ambiguity and so complexity that inhibits RF command.

The fear of Escalation is a straw man that had cost many Ukrainian lives.

Chairman xi has not given permission for the use of tactical nuclear weapons as the unlimited friendship means cheap oil buys conventional weapons only.

General Ben says the politicians need to clearly state the strategic objective: RF defeat , unconditional surrender, reparations and repatriation.

That absence of clarity costs lives…

Cj
Cj (@guest_823769)
1 month ago
Reply to  Lonpfrb

Yeah, think the west has to grow a new set of nuts to be fair.

William Robinson
William Robinson (@guest_824886)
1 month ago
Reply to  Cj

You’re absolutely correct. If the UN allow putrid Putin to dominate what’s happening in Ukraine and the West, because of his threats, he will always push his “contaminated boat” out and threaten the rest of Europe and the West! We need to push back twice as hard as him and show him and his “friends” that we will not allow him or his threats to intimidate us! We must never back down from a despotic madman and if his actions step over the line he must be taken out, along with the scummy creeps who bow down to his dictatorship!

maurice10
maurice10 (@guest_823588)
1 month ago

One possible outcome could be a backlash from within the Kremlin. If significant Russian targets are hit it maybe difficult to keep the lid on this change of tactics. Putin might find it harder to keep a steady ship? However, their is now a finer line between boots on the ground and Western weapons striking the Russian hinterland. As the saying goes, ‘The straw that breaks the camels back.’

Jacko
Jacko (@guest_823590)
1 month ago
Reply to  maurice10

The weapons are not for striking the Russian hinterland they are for troop concentrations before they can enter Ukraine and missile and artillery positions and air bases attacking Ukraine from just across the border without any chance of counter battery fire.

maurice10
maurice10 (@guest_823715)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jacko

It’s still Russian sovereign territory and that’s the issue here. May be Russia could hit German supply lines for Ukraine as they pose a direct threat to them……..you see it works both ways. The so called rules of engagement appear to be clear to you but who polices the Ukraine deployment?

Jacko
Jacko (@guest_823776)
1 month ago
Reply to  maurice10

We don’t police any deployment! If Russia hits Germany or any other NATO country pootin knows what’s coming.he is using weapons supplied by Iran,N Korea etc to hit Ukraine so you reap what you sow.

maurice10
maurice10 (@guest_823954)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jacko

That’s why we should tread carefully in regards to hitting Russia.

Jacko
Jacko (@guest_824079)
1 month ago
Reply to  maurice10

As pootin has illegally annexed occupied parts of Ukraine and say they are now Russian, in his twisted logic western weapons have been hitting Russian territory for three years haven’t they?

Grizzler
Grizzler (@guest_823935)
1 month ago
Reply to  maurice10

Well no it’s not the same as Russia striking Germany at all is it-
and its disingenuous for you to suggest otherwise tbh.
Russia invaded Ukraine and continues to target Ukraine infrastructure with missles fired from Russia so those sites must be viable targets to facilitate increased protection from Russian aggression.
Germany (nor Ukraine for that matter) has not invaded Russia- and Germany will not be firing missles into Russia or flying planes to bomb Russia from internal German sites so targets within Germany are not ‘legal’ targets are they – not at all. .

Last edited 1 month ago by Grizzler
maurice10
maurice10 (@guest_823958)
1 month ago
Reply to  Grizzler

I’m baffled by the notion that Russia hitting Germany as disingenuous, the likelihood is very unlikely but the lines of engagement aren’t all in NATO’s court. Putin regards Ukraine as part of Russia hence not using the term war when describing his invasion. China refers to Taiwan as Chinese territory and it intend to occupy it as and when the time is right. There is a close perspective between these two powers. The licence NATO has given its members in supplying Ukraine is edging closer to a more complex and less defined policy. Such a situation gives Putin a broader… Read more »

Yes
Yes (@guest_824056)
1 month ago
Reply to  Jacko

Nah it’s just to soften Russia up before NATO invasion.

Nick Cole
Nick Cole (@guest_823594)
1 month ago

And why shouldn’t they? Russia is using Korean, Chinese and Iranian weapons to deliberately target civil infrastructure and facilities. If Russia can do it then so can Ukraine. It is Putin who invaded a neighbouring country, it is Putin destabilising peace, and Putin who is threatening use of nuclear weapons. typical of a bully who is not getting his way and threatenibg everyone else.

Crabfat
Crabfat (@guest_823600)
1 month ago
Reply to  Nick Cole

I read elsewhere, that China doesn’t want Russia to start slinging nuclear weapons about – and has expressed this to Putin in no uncertain term, as a condition of ‘friendly relations’ with Russia.

For all their faults, China is pragmatic about having a ‘rogue’ ally with a twitchy finger on the nuclear button. God knows where it will lead.

Nick Cole
Nick Cole (@guest_823613)
1 month ago
Reply to  Crabfat

Not to mention that the ‘West’ is a huge customer of China. Putin is reacting to China in much the same way Israel is to the US!

Quentin D63
Quentin D63 (@guest_823705)
1 month ago
Reply to  Nick Cole

And a big investor into China with industry, technology and lots of stuff for them to copy. All ably adopted and adapted by China and sold back to or used back against the West and the rest of the world en masse.

Nick Cole
Nick Cole (@guest_823757)
1 month ago
Reply to  Quentin D63

All on the basis of maximising profits by taking advantage of lower wages. There is a growing tendency to re-shoring as opposed to off-shoring as people realise the folly of relying on Chinese manufacturing. But if we rely less on their manufacturing they will have less and less to lose!

Quentin D63
Quentin D63 (@guest_823765)
1 month ago
Reply to  Nick Cole

Yes and while the West was maximising its profits the Chinese workers and CCP were smiling saying we can copy that, build that, make it cheaper and sell it back to you (us)! And we can make so much of it we can flood your markets and buy huge swathes of foreign business, assets, currencies and have some greater political-economic influence. Is the West winning or what? Time for rebalancing and some more re-shoring as you say.

Last edited 1 month ago by Quentin D63
Frank62
Frank62 (@guest_823597)
1 month ago

Yes, precision strikes against troops & infrastructure supporting the criminal, illegal, genocidal, invasion of UKR. We should’ve stood up to & firmly rebuffed Putins mad ambitions, not cravenly permitted, empowered him & held back UKR from fighting to its fullest for its very life & future. Appeasment & backing off just because the bully makes wild threats never works. All you do is encourage more of the same across the world, particularly Communist China against Taiwan & N Korea against S Korea. Then you have monumental idiots like Trump carelessly edging the USA closer to civil war. If decent powers… Read more »

Lonpfrb
Lonpfrb (@guest_823654)
1 month ago

Another #45 term means that the CCP can do whatever they want as NATO will be busy Supporting Ukraine without the USA. The only NATO member to invoke Article 5 was the USA (9/11) and everyone responded. It’s clear that NATO membership is the USA national interest so that Congress passed a law to prevent an Executive order to exit. NATO says that the 2010 spending agreement is on track so his alleged delinquency by Europe is just to trigger his support not a reality. Since he’s convicted of 34 felony charges, in addition to fraud and rape charges, there’s… Read more »

Pete
Pete (@guest_823670)
1 month ago

Yes. At least logistics, staging and bases used in attacking them.

Quentin D63
Quentin D63 (@guest_823675)
1 month ago

If shells and missiles are at a premium shouldn’t there be more of a concentration on trying break through back to the Asov east of Mariupol and then work back to get Melitopol and surrounds and the Crimea? Attacking Russia will have to be targeted and surgical. If Ukraine starts killing large numbers of Russian civilians, even unintentionally, isn’t she then going lose some of the moral high ground it currently has? Are actions over into Russia going to actually help remove Russian forces from south-south eastern Ukraine? They might just be more escalatory if they don’t deliver a sufficient… Read more »

Yes
Yes (@guest_824057)
1 month ago
Reply to  Quentin D63

Um, that’s the whole point of conflict. Ukraine’s been killing tens of thousands of their own citizens since 2014. That’s the main reason for Russia interference.

Quentin D63
Quentin D63 (@guest_824063)
1 month ago
Reply to  Yes

Are you a bot or a person “Yes”, “no”? Pretty much doubt your comments in Ukraine as the international community would have called out Ukraine on this if any of that was true. I think the expansion of NATO is more the real threat, plus access to food crops, minerals, resources and the Asov sea, linking up with Crimea, access to the Mediterranean, linking up with Iran, China, others and trade routes into/out from Eastern Europe. All IMHO.

Gunbuster
Gunbuster (@guest_823690)
1 month ago

Yes.

FAFO

David P
David P (@guest_823712)
1 month ago
Reply to  Gunbuster

Surely since Russia has incorporated those Ukrainian territories as part of Russia this is o none argument. I the eyes of the Kremlin Western ordnance has been striking Russia for the last two years.

Edward
Edward (@guest_823874)
1 month ago

If the west can not supply Ukraine with weapons Iran China North Korea should not supply Russia

Yes
Yes (@guest_824054)
1 month ago

Debate in NATO. What a laugh. It’s as if you’re saying that it’s a Ukraine-Russia war and all nato provides is military hardware. Ukraine’s a puppet state. It’s a nazi dictatorship with Russophobic propaganda blaring from every orifice since the coup. Also, Ukraine as a country does not have a capability to carry out any strikes within or without it’s territory. Most of the shock troops might be brainwashed Ukrainian nationalists, but most of the people who operate high precision strikes and aa are nato troops. You cannot operate or target any of the missiles without satellites. How many Ukrainian… Read more »

Chris
Chris (@guest_824097)
1 month ago
Reply to  Yes

I find it hilarious when those of a Russian leaning persuasion accuse Ukraine of being a Nazi dictatorship; they really should take a look closer to home. Russia has nurtured imperialist far-right ideas for decades. There are the ultra-patriots, the official far-right, centred in the LDPR party, once led by notorious extremist political provocateur Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the Just Russia party, headed by Sergey Milonov, both of which are in the Duma. Furthermore, Putin has completely dismantled all of Russia’s nascent democratic institutions. Elections are neither free nor fair. Putin’s party, United Russia, always wins, and oppositionists are routinely harassed… Read more »

Posse Comitatus
Posse Comitatus (@guest_824160)
1 month ago
Reply to  Yes

Another Russian sock puppet I see. It takes a fair bit of moral gymnastics to view Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin’s far right nationalist ideology, its suppression of dissent, imprisonment and murder of opposition politicians, the deliberate targeting of civil infrastructure, summary rape and execution of civilians, etc and then somehow conclude that it is Ukraine with its democratically elected government and Jewish president that is nazi. You haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about. Stick to distilling vodka from your potatoes, it’s about all you’re good for.

dc647
dc647 (@guest_824082)
1 month ago

Russia is the aggressor they have got to expect Ukraine has the legal and the moral grounds to attack targets within Russias borders it doesn’t really matter where the weapons came from, to make it even more legitimate instead of the west donating weapons they should charge Ukraine a nominal amount and defer payment till after Ukraine has won, then Ukraine owns them and it has got nothing to do with the supplying countries.Russia is using weapons from Iran, North Korea possibly China which they deny. Just my humble opinion… We owed the US millions and millions after the second… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by dc647
David Lee
David Lee (@guest_824423)
1 month ago

Absolutely they should use western weapons in Russia they’re using Iranian North Korean answer chinese weapons against ukranian troops and civilians

Christine Lynch
Christine Lynch (@guest_824613)
1 month ago

Yeah…. go on… keep on poking the bear. Russia WILL not tolerate the constant provocations by the west. And Russia will never surrender or move out of the Ukraine which Cameron said was the only option on the table. Is Cameron completely deluded? If the Russians were prepared to burn down the whole of Moscow rather than let the enemy get the city then you can be sure Russia will not allow itself to be defeated. It’s time for some good old fashioned British pragmatism. Not appeasement… pragmatism. This is not going to end well if NATO keeps on sabre… Read more »