Recent statements from Washington on Ukrainian strikes inside Russian territory have sometimes seemed confusing and sometimes seemed untrue.
On December 5 and 6, Ukrainian missiles struck three Russian air force bases hundreds of kilometers inside Russian territory, with the furthest target being 390 miles from Ukrainian controlled land.
Days later, on December 9, an unnamed US defense source told The Times of London that "We’re not saying to Kyiv, ‘Don’t strike the Russians [in Russia or Crimea]’. We can’t tell them what to do. It’s up to them how they use their weapons. But when they use the weapons we have supplied, the only thing we insist on is that the Ukrainian military conform to the international laws of war and to the Geneva conventions." The defense source added, "They are the only limitations but that includes no targeting of Russian families and no assassinations. As far as we’re concerned, Ukraine has been in compliance."
When they use what weapons the US has supplied? The Biden administration has been careful to avoid bringing the US into more direct conflict with Russia and thrusting NATO into the war by limiting the weapons it supplies Ukraine to those without the range or ability to strike inside Russian territory.
At a press conference on the same as the Ukrainian strikes inside Russia, State Department spokesperson Ned Price was asked "What is the U.S. view on these strikes? [W]ould Washington be comfortable with Ukraine using any of the weapons that it provided to hit targets well inside Russian territory?"
Price responded categorically that "We have not provided Ukraine with weapons that it is to use inside of Russia." He then added that Biden has been very clear about that: "We have been very clear that these are defensive supplies. We are – the President said very clearly sometime ago, we are not enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We are not encouraging Ukraine to strike beyond its borders."
In June, the US announced that it would be providing High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) to Ukraine. Those launchers have the capability to carry rockets with a range of up to 186 miles: only half as far as the recent Ukrainian strikes. But, even then, the US sent HIMARS with a limited capability of 50 miles. The White House said it received "assurances" from Ukraine that it will not use the new weapons to strike inside Russian territory. "We promised our partners that we will use their weapons only on Ukrainian territory as a deterrent," said Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov.
Apparently not fully trusting those assurances, reporting by The Wall Street Journal recently revealed that the Pentagon secretly modified the HIMARS to include a unique feature that prevents them from being used to fire long-range missiles that could reach Russia.
If his statement is reliable, then, what did The Times US defense source mean that they are not telling Ukraine not to strike inside Russia or that the only limitation on use of US supplied weapons is that they only be used in ways that conform to international law?
The recent Ukrainian strikes in Russian territory, though, did not use US supplied weapons. The Times reports that "Ukraine has been careful to use its own drones, not US-supplied weapons, to carry out the strikes."
Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted on December 6 that "We have neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia."
But no one believes him: not in Russia nor NATO.
To strike inside Russia, Ukraine reportedly employed Soviet-era jet drones. The Tu-141 Strizh drones were developed in the 1970’s. In October, Ukraine claimed that they had developed an upgraded model of the Tu-141 that could travel further: up to 620 miles. But the Tu-141 Strizh drone has an internal navigation system that lacks the necessary precision for the recent strikes inside Russia. That problem "may have been solved with the help of widely available civilian satellite technology."
Asia Times reports that "Multiple military sources in NATO countries as well as Russia contradict [Blinken], reporting that the reconditioned Russian Tu-141 drones that Ukraine launched at Russian air bases downlinked US satellite GPS data to hit their targets." The sources said that "Ukraine does not have the capability to guide missiles on its own" and that they were "directed by American satellites."
Chinese military columnist Chen Feng says that "It is an open secret that Western satellites are being used to support the Ukrainian army in operations." But if they have now been promoted to guiding strikes inside Russia, that would risk escalating the war and bringing NATO into direct conflict with Russia.
Even before the strikes, on October 27, the Russian foreign ministry said that such "quasi-civilian infrastructure" constitutes " indirect participation in military conflicts" and "may become a legitimate target for retaliation.” On November 30, Russian officials had warned that "satellites, which are produced in Western countries and used by the APU [Armed Forces of Ukraine], can become for the Russian army a legitimate target."
However, Russian sources have reportedly said that Russia will not retaliate against US satellites.
The Times source says that the US is "still using the same escalatory calculations but the fear of escalation has changed since the beginning." The Times attributes that change to fears that Russia would respond to attacks inside its borders with tactical nuclear weapons calming since "Moscow’s revenge attacks have to date all involved conventional missile strikes."
However, the new calculus seems not to account for the possibility that Russia’s responses have been restrained because Ukraine’s attacks have been restrained. Russia has many escalatory options between what they are using now and tactical nuclear weapons, including a claimed capacity to hit 300 targets with precision hypersonic missiles.
And, diplomatically, it may not be the most judicious move to signal to a country whose nuclear policy allows – as does yours – the hypothetical use of nuclear weapons "when the very existence of the state is threatened" by "aggression using conventional weapons" that you will tacitly green light strikes inside their territory unless they threaten a nuclear response.
So, recent remarks that the US is not limiting Ukraine’s strikes to inside Ukrainian territory but that they have "neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia" seem to be, in the first case, confusing, and in the second, untrue.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.