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Biden allows Ukraine to hit Russia with American weapons near Kharkiv

Rescuers work at a site of a residential building hit by a Russian missile strike in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 31, 2024.
Rescuers work at a site of a residential building hit by a Russian missile strike in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on May 31, 2024.

In a shift from his previous position, U.S. President Joe Biden has allowed Ukraine to use American-provided weapons to counter Russian attacks in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, located just 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the border with Russia.

Speaking from Prague on Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed the change in policy. “Over the past few weeks, Ukraine came to us and asked the authorization to use weapons that we're providing to defend against this aggression, including against Russian forces that are massing on the Russian side of the border and then attacking into Ukraine,” he said.

Blinken left open the possibility of the policy being applied to other regions of the conflict. “Going forward, we'll continue to do what we've been doing, which is, as necessary, adapt and adjust, he said.

U.S. policy prohibiting the use of long-range missiles known as ATACMS, or Army Tactical Missile System, that could hit targets deep inside Russia has not changed.

"This applies to counter-fire capabilities that are deployed just across the border. It does not apply to ATACMS or long-range strikes," said Michael Carpenter, senior director for Europe at the White House National Security Council.

"This is meant to enable Ukrainians to defend themselves against what would otherwise be a Russian sanctuary across the border," Carpenter said in a Friday interview with VOA.

Fearing escalation, Biden had been reluctant to authorize the use of weapons to hit targets inside Russia despite pressure from Ukraine and European allies. However, Moscow’s advances on Kharkiv in recent weeks may have persuaded him.

Kharkiv, Ukraine, is only 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Russian border.
Kharkiv, Ukraine, is only 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the Russian border.

The White House’s decision “does the minimum to help Ukraine with a difficult situation in the northeast,” removing “a major burden on Ukraine’s efforts to defend civilians in Kharkiv and to stop the Russian offensive,” said John Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. At the same time, it “makes public a range of restrictions that seem designed to temper Moscow’s reaction.”

“This half step is certainly better than none,” Herbst said, but it “does not send the necessary message of American resolve to the Kremlin.”

Russian assets

Biden is hosting Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo at the White House on Friday, following formal adoption of a plan by the European Union earlier this month to use profits from Russian central bank assets frozen in the EU for Ukraine's defense.

To punish Moscow over its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, G7 economies, including the United States and the EU, have immobilized vast sums of Russian central bank assets. U.S. and European officials have been debating on how to unlock these funds to help Kyiv.

Biden signed legislation in April allowing Washington to seize the roughly $5 billion in Russian assets located in the United States. However, most of the approximately $280 billion Russian assets are in Europe, including $225 billion held by EU countries, the majority of which are frozen in Belgium.

Last week G7 finance ministers said they will back the EU’s plan. Biden and other G7 leaders are set to formally give their support during their summit in Apulia, Italy, this June.

Under the plan agreed to by the EU, interest and other investment returns accruing on these assets could total more than $3 billion each year and will be used by Western allies to pay themselves back for funds they provide to Ukraine in the near term.

Details of the plan are still unclear, said Ian Lesser, distinguished fellow and adviser to the president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“What is clear is that it's going to be collected and used in the European level,” he told VOA. The funds could be used for economic support for Ukraine but also to back the purchase arms for Ukraine and support the European defense industries, he said.

Russian officials have suggested they could retaliate by confiscating U.S. and European assets in Russia. While some countries may be concerned by the threat, others are worried about the precedent of using frozen assets under international law.

“If this goes ahead, others who may be exposed to historic grievances of all kinds may find that they are having their assets ceased as reparations,” Lesser said.

The plan is projected to yield as much as $50 billion for Ukraine in the near future. However, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the ultimate goal is to seize Russian assets, not just the interest. "With all our gratitude for this decision today, the amounts are not commensurate [with the amount of frozen assets]," he told reporters.

De Croo’s visit to Washington came days after his meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Belgium. The leaders signed a security agreement which includes the delivery of 30 U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, another move to bolster Kyiv's defense capabilities against Moscow.

"These F-16 jets will be provided to Ukraine as soon as possible. Our aim is to be able to provide first aircraft before the end of this year, 2024," De Croo said at a press conference with Zelenskyy earlier this week.

However, he underscored those jets cannot be flown in Russian territory.

De Croo is also expected to urge Biden to exert more pressure on Israel to change its war conduct and allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

After Spain, Ireland and Norway said they would recognize a Palestinian state earlier this week, several parties pushed the Belgian Federal Government to do the same but failed to reach an agreement.

Iuliia Iarmolenko contributed to this report.