Ukraine better armed, with caveat

These alarming developments compelled Blinken to persuade a reticent President Biden to provide Ukraine with more equipment and the freedom to use it outside its territory. This American green light also influenced about half of the EU/NATO member states.

However, Ukraine’s freedom to take the war into Russian territory is limited. They can use US-supplied weapons for counterfire purposes against Russian forces hitting or threatening Kharkiv. This primarily concerns the Belgorod region and city, where Russian forces are regrouping and from where they can advance into the Kharkiv region under the protection of their artillery or drones fired from Russian territory. Despite this conditional allowance, the loosening of previous restrictions marks a significant shift from Biden’s long-standing policy of keeping the war within Ukrainian territories. This change comes amid growing international pressure from close US allies to go further. From now on, Ukraine will not need prior permission to use some American arms, but this is limited to the area around Kharkiv. The deal is based on Zelensky’s promises to Blinken that his forces will respect these limits. Officially, the Biden administration does not anticipate widening the allowed area.

Uncharted Territories

Despite Washington’s caveats, the situation is moving into uncharted territories. For instance, it obliges Ukrainians to avoid targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. However, it is silent on cases where enemy soldiers are billeted in civilian buildings such as schools, sports arenas, or cultural centers. What if Ukrainians decide that Russians are threatening another city and need to destroy their support bases in Russia? There is also no mention of the rest of the 1,200 km front in case of Russian progression, rolling back a Ukrainian army unable to defend its cities or key infrastructure due to a lack of anti-air defense and long-range cannons.

Biden’s decision has also lifted the reticence of many European countries and the EU, where French President Macron is trying to distract attention from the national scene by leading a crusade to form a “coalition of the willing” ready to send “specialists” into Ukrainian territory which might be divisive. These changes reflect the exasperation of Ukraine’s allies after 2.5 years of an undecided war and a lack of confidence in Ukraine’s capacity to stop Russian forces, even if better equipped. It also signals that despite Zelensky’s undiplomatic attitude, the “friends of Ukraine” are ready to do much more to prevent further Russian advances. Zelensky had recently questioned the will of his allies to ensure Ukraine’s victory versus their reluctance to defeat Russia. Allies are also very aware of their public opinion and would appreciate Ukrainian officials paying more attention to the costs of their engagement to help Ukraine, both now and after the war, to secure its territory and rebuild the country.

Another unanswered question concerns the military situation on the ground and a change in the conduct of the war. Before the Russian attack on Kharkiv, battles were confined to specific areas. Ukrainian commanders were shifting reserves from one place to another, not without success. Now the entire front is moving, Russian units are actively engaged along the entire line of contact. Ukrainian reserves are needed everywhere and the army suffers from a shortage of men despite new conscription legislation.


The Kremlin seems to have been taken by surprise by Biden’s U-turn. The reaction of the Kremlin spokesman was relatively mild by recent standards. Then came the usual threats from former President Medvedev, deputies, and journalists, along with remarks about the danger of confronting a vast country with a nuclear arsenal. Indeed, the fear of a direct confrontation with Russia explains why Biden has been dithering for months. However, Russians do not seem to link their attack on Kharkiv and Blinken’s visit to Kyiv, preferring their usual conspiracy theories.

The green light from the US includes a caveat, and few believe the limits might be lifted in case of a Ukrainian front collapse. But Russians do not seem to grasp Washington’s argument that deterrence has its limits and that Washington is serious about supporting Ukraine. For President Biden and his successor, the main threat to the US is China, which is why a stable and cooperative Russia is important for the Americans. Amazingly, European commentators reject Russia’s nuclear threat as blackmail, arguing that for two years the West has overstepped its own ‘red lines’ (delivering offensive weapons, missiles, tanks, anti-air weapons, etc.) without significant reactions from the Kremlin beyond the usual boasting. This approach could dangerously provoke the Russians by claiming that the nuclear threat is just that – a threat – and that if Putin dares to use nuclear arms, “we have enough conventional forces to demolish you.” Meanwhile, Moscow is convinced that decision-making power rests in Washington, even during an election campaign, because Americans have institutions while the EU will be semi-paralysed for months before and after the June 9 elections. Zelensky got the same message, hence his hurry to sign bilateral treaties with almost all EU members.

What If?

Among the many comments published in Russian media, one stands out. Vedomosti quoted Ilya Kramnik, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic Planning Studies at IMEMO RAS, saying that “the traditional US logic (increasing costs for the adversary, seeking deterrence by convincing them that the costs of hostile activity would outweigh the benefits) has been modified (maintaining the status quo, ideally without crossing the line of direct armed conflict). The problem with this approach is that in Russia, potential conflicts are never assessed through the lens of costs but only through the lens of threats. The opponent’s raising of stakes leads to an assessment of ‘Is the current reason significant enough or not yet’?If the answer is “no,” then there may be no reaction for a long time, but once it shifts to “yes,” the reaction could be much more extensive – even if it might have seemed the day before that nothing significant was happening. As a result, the use of Western long-range weapons against military targets on Russian territory outside the assumed zone of military operations could quickly change the scale and nature of the conflict”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *