Is the US Losing Control of Ukraine?

In the very early days of the war in Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was open to negotiating a peace. The proposed peace could have ended the war, before tens of thousands of Ukrainians had died and Ukraine’s infrastructure was devastated, on terms that satisfied Ukraine’s goals. But the US pressured Ukraine to go on fighting in pursuit, not of Ukraine’s goals, but of larger American goals.

Putting an end to Ukraine’s negotiations with Russia, State Department spokesperson Ned Price remarkably said that "this is a war that is in many ways bigger than Russia, it’s bigger than Ukraine" and insisted that Ukrainians go on fighting and dying for "core principles," for US goals.

The US got its way. Now a year later, with the war not going well for Ukraine and getting more and more desperate, Ukraine is forced to retreat to pursuing its own goals. Ironically, that is increasingly taking the form of escalating the war in a way that now endangers US goals.

Ukraine is now pursing its own security interests in a way that is extraordinarily dangerous to US security interests. And they seem to be disregarding US restrictions in pursuing them. Months of US permissiveness, months of US failure to say no to Ukraine at each crossing of a red line has seemingly emboldened Ukraine to ignore US limits and conditions on the use of American supplied weapons.

One of the key goals of the Biden administration is to stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. That is Biden’s promise to Ukraine. But a second key goal is to avoid being drawn into a NATO war with Russia. That is Biden’s promise to Americans. A recent wave of Ukrainian attacks on the territory of Russia – not Donbas or Crimea, but the internationally recognized territory of Russia – threatens that promise and threatens the security of Americans.

Ukraine has long promised “not to target Russian territory with weapons provided by the West.” They recently reiterated that promise when they promised that British supplied long range Storm Shadow cruise missiles "will be used only within Ukrainian sovereign territory and not inside Russia" and when they provided the US "flat assurances" that F-16 fighter-bombers won’t be used inside Russian territory.

But Ukraine did not keep that promise. In pursuit of their goals – understandably, since the US insisted they postpone those goals and go on fighting the Russian military in pursuit of US goals – they have crossed the red line of US limits and conditions on the use of US supplied weapons and struck inside Russian territory. This defiantly independent military strategy is increasing the danger that the US and NATO could get drawn into a war with Russia.

On May 3, two drones were disabled over the Kremlin in what Russia views as an attack on Russia and as an attempt to assassinate President Vladimir Putin. Ukraine denied involvement, insisting that “Ukraine wages an exclusively defensive war and does not attack targets on the territory of the Russian Federation.” Zelensky said categorically, “We don’t attack Putin or Moscow. We fight on our territory. We are defending our villages and cities.”

But Kiev’s insistence that it had kept its promise not to strike inside "the territory of the Russian Federation" was disingenuous. The New York Times has reported that US intelligence agencies now believe that the drone attack was carried out by “one of Ukraine’s special military or intelligence units.”

And that strike was only the boldest in a series of recent strikes inside Russia’s borders. In the same month, Ukraine has struck a military training ground and an oil refinery in Russian territory. In December, Ukraine carried out two attacks on Russia’s Engels air base.

On May 23, a raid was carried out from Ukrainian territory into the Russian region of Belgorod. For two days, the Russian military fought them back across the border. Pictures of the attack suggest that US armored vehicles were used in the raid.

Ukraine has denied any involvement in the attack. Denis Nikitin, who also goes by the name Denis Kapustin, is the head of the group that claims responsibility for the raid. His group carried out an earlier raid on two towns in the Bryansk region of Russia on the border of Ukraine on March 2. At that time, he said, despite similar Ukrainian denials of support or involvement, that the “cross-border raid he’d conducted from Ukraine into Russia had the endorsement of Kyiv.” He told The Financial Times that Ukrainian authorities signed off on the attack. “Yes, of course, this action was agreed,” he said, “otherwise it couldn’t have happened.” He went on to say that “If I did not co-ordinate it with anyone [in Ukraine’s military] . . . I think we would simply be destroyed.”

Despite the public disavowal, a Ukrainian military official has privately acknowledged "co-operating" with the attackers.

Washington seems to be expressing frustration with its apparent loss of control over Kiev. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said that while he "can’t say with definitive accuracy . . . whether that’s U.S. supplied equipment or not . . . I can say that we have asked the Ukrainians not to use U.S.-supplied equipment for direct attacks into Russia." The State Department complained that "We have made very clear to the Ukrainians that we don’t enable or encourage attacks outside Ukrainians’ borders." And US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby "hinted at frustration in Washington," saying that "We’ve been pretty darn clear: We don’t support the use of U.S.-made equipment for attacks inside Russia … we’ve been clear about that with the Ukrainians."

Nonetheless, the Associated Press reports that on May 27, despite the multiple very public reminders from Washington, Ukrainian attacks inside Russia’s went on. Several drones were reportedly shot down en route to the Ilsky oil refinery in Russia’s southern Krasnodar region. Two people were reportedly killed by Ukrainian shelling of the town of Almaznaya. And local officials said that, once again, Belgorad "came under attack from Ukrainian forces on Saturday."

At the beginning of the war, the US pushed aside Ukrainian interests and insisted that Ukrainians fight and die in pursuit of American goals. The ironic blowback from that is that, fourteen months later, Ukraine is pursuing security concerns created by that insistence in a way that is in direct contradiction to US security concerns. The US seems to have lost control of Kiev, and Ukraine is now pursuing its own goals in a way that ignores US goals by increasing the danger that the US and NATO could get drawn into a war with Russia.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.