Should Ukraine hit back at targets in Russia with Western-supplied weapons?

European defence ministers met in Brussels yesterday (Tuesday). And while the 27-member bloc agreed on their “unwavering” support for Ukraine’s defence against Russia’s invasion, they’re wavering on what exactly “unwavering” means.

What’s the debate?

The most pressing question involves Western requirements that Kyiv not use Western arms to hit back at targets in Russia. The idea has long been to avoid ‘escalating’ things any closer to direct conflict between Russia and the West.

But Putin has just responded to these Western red lines by staging more attacks from the Russian side of the border. And that makes it difficult for Ukraine to defend a major city like Kharkiv, which is only 30km from the boundary line.

While Ukraine has periodically hit back at Russian soil with homemade weapons, it says it hasn’t done so with Western weapons for fear of losing Western support.

So as Putin keeps attacking, President Zelenskyy is now re-upping his request for the West to relax those rules. And he has support, too:

  • The UK, Finland, Sweden, Poland and others have already given the green light
  • The Dutch defence minister says it shouldn’t even be a “subject of debate
  • NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg agrees, saying it’s like asking Ukraine to fight with one hand tied behind its back, and
  • French President Macron reached a similar view yesterday during his visit to Germany, though he said (🇫🇷) Ukraine should only “neutralise” specific military sites from where Russian missiles are launched.

But others have continued to hold the line. And crucially, they include the two largest providers of security aid to Ukraine: the US and Germany.

Germany’s leader Olaf Scholz may haverelaxed his stance yesterday, saying (🇩🇪) he agrees with Macron. However, Scholz still a) insisted Ukraine must respect any donor conditions, b) didn’t clarify his own conditions, and c) hasn’t actually provided weapons (like the Taurus) capable of reaching Russian soil.

So that leaves the US, which is still holding firm: the State Department just reiterated on Friday that it doesn’t “encourage or enable” strikes in Russia, though said it’s up to Kyiv how it uses non-US weapons. And there are reports that Secretary of State Blinken is now lobbying internally to relax the US rules.

But while this all plays out, Putin keeps dropping periodic reminders about his nuclear arsenal, and on Tuesday warned NATO’s “small European countries” to “keep in mind” that they are “small and densely populated”. Putin also, however, recently said he doesn’t believe Russia and the US are set for a nuclear conflict.

Regardless, the three NATO nuclear powers (the US, UK, and France) have now repeatedly warned Putin of “severe consequences” if he goes nuclear.


When presented with this kind of escalation ladder, it’s worth reflecting on who’s using it, why, where it leads, and what options there are in response.

So, who’s escalating? While Putin cites grievances around Russia’s post-Cold War treatment, it was Russian tanks that rolled over Ukraine’s borders, and it’s now Russian rhetoric that keeps going nuclear.

Why? This will be the stuff of endless PhDs, but in our view it’s to a) signal strength given Russia’s woes, b) signal determination in the face of Western dithering, and c) peel away the ‘peace at any cost’ members of the West.

And where does this lead? Putin’s aim is to divide and deflate the West, and drag it to the negotiating table with a view to banking his territorial gains. But his immediate NATO neighbours – with their own experiences of Russian invasion – doubt Putin will stop there, so they’re wary of appearing vulnerable to these tactics.

So what are your options? Faced with this kind of escalation ladder, you either climb up or down, right? Or maybe, you focus less on someone else’s ladder, and more on making decisions that shape events in your favour.

And right now, few Western leaders will want to see an emboldened, conquering Putin, cheered on by his friends in Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran.

Also worth noting:

  • Zelenskyy has urged US President Biden and China’s Xi Jinping to attend next month’s peace summit in Switzerland. His aim is to unite global opinion around Ukraine’s peace plan, which includes Russia returning to its borders. Switzerland has said it’s open to inviting Russia to join at a future stage, but Russia has said it has no interest.
  • Zelenskyy just wrapped a tour through Spain, Portugal, and Belgium. He signed security deals at each stop, including for Belgium to provide 30 F-16 fighter jets.
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