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Biden partially lifts ban on Ukraine using US arms in strikes on Russian territory

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has given Ukraine the go-ahead to use American weaponry to strike inside Russia for the limited purpose of defending Kharkiv, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, underscored that the U.S. policy calling on Ukraine not to use American-provided ATACMS or long-range missiles and other munitions to strike offensively inside Russia has not changed.

Biden’s directive allows for U.S.-supplied weapons to be used for “counterfire purposes in the Kharkiv region so Ukraine can hit back against Russian forces that are attacking them or preparing to attack them,” one official said.

The move comes as Ukrainian officials have stepped up calls on the U.S. administration to allow its forces to defend itself against attacks originating from Russian territory. Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is just 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Russian border.

Biden’s decision was first reported by Politico.

Ukrainian officials, most notably Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have been increasingly vocal in arguing that the restriction was putting Ukrainian forces in an untenable situation as Russia intensified attacks around the northeast Kharkiv region.

The advances came with Russia exploiting a lengthy delay in replenishment of U.S. military aid and as Western Europe’s inadequate military production has slowed crucial deliveries to the battlefield for Ukraine.

During Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Kyiv two weeks ago, Zelenskyy made his case for using American weapons to strike back at positions in Russia that were launching attacks into north and northeast Ukraine, according to three U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.

Blinken was convinced and brought that message back to Washington, but it was ultimately Biden’s decision to make, the officials said.

Since the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022, Biden has been steadfast in his opposition to Ukraine’s offensive use of American-made weaponry, concerned that the action could be seen as provocative and lead to Moscow widening the war.

Blinken said in Moldova on Wednesday that U.S. policy on how Ukraine deploys American weapons is constantly evolving, hinting that Washington may alter its unwritten prohibition on Ukraine’s use of them for attacks on Russian territory. On Thursday, Blinken joined NATO foreign ministers for a meeting in Prague, where during a tour of a Czech military base he saw armored vehicles that are being sent to Kyiv.

Although U.S. officials insist there is no formal arms ban, they have long made clear that they believe the use of American weapons to attack targets inside Russia could provoke an escalatory response from Moscow, something that Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised.

That position, Blinken noted, was a “hallmark” of the Biden administration’s stance on Ukraine to “adapt and adjust” as needed. Blinken visited Kyiv earlier this month and heard a direct appeal from Zelenskyy to use U.S. military assistance to strike positions in Russian from where attacks on Ukraine are launched.

“As the conditions have changed, as the battlefield has changed, as what Russia does has changed in terms of how it’s pursuing its aggression, escalation, we’ve adapted and adjusted too, and I’m confident we’ll continue to do that,” Blinken said at a news conference in Moldova.

“At every step along the way, we’ve adapted and adjusted as necessary, and so that’s exactly what we’ll do going forward,” he said. “We’re always listening, we’re always learning, and we’re always making determinations about what’s necessary to make sure that Ukraine can effectively continue to defend itself, and we’ll continue to do that.”

Calls for a change in policy have been mounting.

Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said that Western countries should not object if Ukraine needs to strike inside Russia to defend itself. Stoltenberg reaffirmed that position on Thursday.

“I believe that time has come to (re)consider some of these restrictions to enable the Ukrainians to really defend themselves,” he said. “We need to remember what it is. This is a war of aggression launched by choice by Moscow against Ukraine.”

The right to self-defense, he said, ” includes also striking legitimate military targets outside Ukraine.”

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said at a NATO-related event Thursday in Prague that Ukraine needs resources to counter Russia’s relentless assault.

“Ukraine cannot fight against Russia with one hand tied behind its back,” he said. “Ukraine must be able to fight against Russia’s barbaric invasion even on Russian territory. Political resolve must be backed by credible capabilities.”

Norway’s foreign minister, Espen Barth Eide, told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that his country believes Ukraine “has a crystal-clear right under international law to attack Russia inside Russia as part of the defense of its territory.”

Biden’s decision comes as he’s set to travel to France early next month to attend D-Day 80th anniversary commemorations in Normandy, a watershed moment in changing the course of World War II. Zelenskyy is among dozens of world leaders expected to attend to attend the D-Day commemorations.

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Lee reported from Prague. Associated Press writers Karel Janicek in Prague and Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this report.

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