Biden May Loosen Ukraine Constraints

There is a strong push inside the administration to allow use of US weapons to strike Russia.

David Sanger reporting for NYT (“Inside the White House, a Debate Over Letting Ukraine Shoot U.S. Weapons Into Russia“):

Since the first American shipments of sophisticated weapons to Ukraine, President Biden has never wavered on one prohibition: President Volodymyr Zelensky had to agree to never fire them into Russian territory, insisting that would violate Mr. Biden’s mandate to “avoid World War III.”

But the consensus around that policy is fraying. Propelled by the State Department, there is now a vigorous debate inside the administration over relaxing the ban to allow the Ukrainians to hit missile and artillery launch sites just over the border in Russia — targets that Mr. Zelensky says have enabled Moscow’s recent territorial gains.

The proposal, pressed by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken after a sobering visit to Kyiv last week, is still in the formative stages, and it is not clear how many of his colleagues among Mr. Biden’s inner circle have signed on. It has not yet been formally presented to the president, who has traditionally been the most cautious, officials said.

The State Department spokesman, Matthew A. Miller, declined to comment on the internal deliberations over Ukraine policy, including Mr. Blinken’s report after his return from Kyiv.

But officials involved in the deliberations said Mr. Blinken’s position had changed because the Russians had opened a new front in the war, with devastating results. Moscow’s forces have placed weapons right across the border from northeastern Ukraine, and aimed them at Kharkiv — knowing the Ukrainians would only be able to use non-American drones and other weaponry to target them in response.

For months, Mr. Zelensky has been mounting attacks on Russian ships, oil facilities and electricity plants, but he has been doing so largely with Ukrainian-made drones, which don’t pack the power and speed of the American weapons. And increasingly, the Russians are shooting down the Ukrainian drones and missiles or sending them astray, thanks to improved electronic warfare techniques.

Now, the pressure is mounting on the United States to help Ukraine target Russian military sites, even if Washington wants to maintain its ban on attacking oil refineries and other Russian infrastructure with American-provided arms. Britain, usually in lockstep with Washington on war strategy, has quietly lifted its own restrictions, so that its “Storm Shadow” cruise systems can be used to target Russia more broadly.

The British foreign secretary, David Cameron, a former prime minister, said during a visit to Kyiv ahead of Mr. Blinken’s that Ukraine “absolutely has the right to strike back at Russia.”

While I fully understand the administration’s reluctance to allow US-made weapons to be used to target Russia proper, the impact is that Ukraine is fighting with one hand tied behind its back. Not only, as Cameron notes, does Ukraine have a right to strike Russian targets in response to an illegal invasion but it’s both tactically and strategically sound to do so. Otherwise, the devastation is all inside Ukraine.

Further, it’s not quite clear why Putin would view US weapons striking inside the country differently than US weapons killing Russian troops, tanks, and planes. Either way, we’re essentially fighting a proxy war.

While the headline rightly focuses on that issue, this revelation deeper inside the piece is arguably more startling:

The United States is now considering training Ukrainian troops inside the country, rather than sending them to a training ground in Germany. That would require putting American military personnel in Ukraine, something else that Mr. Biden has prohibited until now. It raises the question of how the United States would respond if the trainers, who would likely be based near the western city of Lviv, came under attack. The Russians have periodically targeted Lviv, though it is distant from the main areas of combat.

US trainers inside Ukraine would absolutely be legitimate targets for Russia. If we’re not prepared to lose them, we shouldn’t send them. Further, if winning the war is not worth American troops directly engaging Russian troops—and I agree with Biden that it is not—then the loss of American trainers in a war zone shouldn’t change that calculation, as that prospect should be factored into the deployment decision.

FILED UNDER: Europe, World Politics, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    Putin and certain of his advisors have not been subtle on their desire to reasemble the Soviet Union, and extend it farther to the west. So one way of looking at this is that Ukraine is the first step in Russia’s plan and this current is also a war for NATO members that were formerly under USSR control. If you look at it that way, the answer is obvious: we should support Ukraine in every way we can, as if they lose we will eventually be engaging Russian directly.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    What you said.

  3. Gustopher says:

    US trainers inside Ukraine would absolutely be legitimate targets for Russia. If we’re not prepared to lose them, we shouldn’t send them.

    We are not prepared to lose them.

    We have one party divided on whether to support Ukraine at all, and I expect dead American servicemen would be used as a prop to expand the pro-Putin caucus with “why are these beautiful American heroes in Ukraine at all?”

  4. JohnSF says:

    Someone needs to lock Jake Sullivan in a cupboard for six months.

  5. steve says:

    Trainers are a bad idea. However, Russia has been using shells from N Korea and stuff from other countries to attack Ukraine. Not sure why Ukraine cant use stuff from other countries to attack Russia.


  6. Kathy says:


    Strictly speaking, because Ukraine is not going to attack North Korea or Iran in retaliation for supplying Russia, nor can they interdict weapons’ shipments.

  7. dazedandconfused says:


    There is a possibility the smart guys in the Pentagon, DIA and CIA, along with their counterparts in NATO, have assessed Russia’s intentions as limited to Ukraine. I suspect this because if they really believed they must be stopped in Ukraine there would already be troops on the ground there…along with an air force or at least strong calls for that to be.

    There is a tendency to project Adolf into everything but Russia’s actions before the war have significant differences. They did not mobilize fully as Adolf did, who started militarizing Germany all the way back in the early 30s with mandatory youth camps which were all but pre-boot camps. In fact the forces Russia sent into Ukraine were reported to have been surprised they were in Ukraine at all, and the Russian people were reported to have reacted with incredulity at the news.

    Of course objectives can change in war, but it seems unlikely that Putin would determine, after the huge losses of even taking on Ukraine with NATO et al only giving half-assed support, that he was ready to take on NATO directly.

    A war on which the fate of the West will be decided or a war to the last Ukrainian? The latter is the more apparent. There are no plausible plans to take back all the lost territory and we are two years into this. If I were Zelenskyy I’d be looking at cutting a deal with Russia.

  8. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @steve: They ultimately could, and may become able to do so as NATO and the US abandon (more on the US side, I suspect) that this is a free opportunity to proxy-fight a war with no skin in the game. That’s been what’s been suggested as the selling point for what we’ve been doing so far. The period of free proxy-war may be over, though.

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @dazedandconfused: Your “if I were Zelenskyy…” presumes that there is a suitable deal with Putin to be had. Color me skeptical.

  10. dazedandconfused says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    War tends to become unsuitable as well, if it lasts long enough.

  11. JohnSF says:

    Well, some Iranians connected to the arms supply to Russia have turned up dead in various places.
    The Ukrainian agencies seem to be a lot less squeamish about such things than their US/European equivalents.

  12. JohnSF says:

    The problem is that Russia’s price for a deal appears to be now as it always was: the subordination of Ukraine to Russian domination.
    Territorial expansion is NOT the Russian primary objective.
    It’s a means, not an end.
    (With the possible exception of Crimea)
    See the whole “Minsk” saga; see also the Russian proposals of late spring 2022.
    Russia has morphed towards a quasi-fascist national mobilization ideology since the war, and because the initial decapitation blitzkrieg plan failed.

    But again (though regime elites vary between the cynics, the nationalists, and the nutcases) the fascistic aspects seem a second-order result of the two primary objectives: firstly, regime/elite protection, and secondly, regime/elite perceptions of state interest.

    Putin, and the Putin-regime elite, have little incentive to seek a peace if they think they can achieve victory via attrition, or by a “hot peace” for that matter.
    So long as the regime is secure, and the elite continue to live well, why should they?
    There is scant indication the hundreds of thousands of dead or maimed Russians concern them one iota.

    The only cost and risk that currently seems likely to coerce a change of course is that the the Russian Army in Ukraine might be so damaged as to risk its capacity of carrying out its primary task: ensuring regime security.

    In pursuit of that, it is imperative that Russia NOT perceive that the Western support for is conditional on negotiation, or will be limited to encourage that, or “calibrated” to ensure that Russia is not subjected to regime-endangering damage.
    That is all too often what US, and German, in particular, supply policies have seemed to indicate.
    If such indications continue, and the Russian Army is capable of staggering on, the war will continue.

    Because Putin will have no reason to end it.

  13. JohnSF says:

    The problem is, that at present, war suits Putin, and his key supporters, just fine.

  14. Kathy says:


    Good to know.

    But it’s not as if Ukraine can bomb a couple of North Korean or Iranian cities or ports.

    Mad Vlad could bombs cities in the Baltics, Poland, and other countries. He could also send fighters to shoot up trucks carrying arms to Ukraine. This would escalate the conflict, which I’m sure he doesn’t want to do for now. But he might feel justified if Ukraine were using NATO supplied weapons to attack Russian cities, supply depots in Russia, etc.

    And he might just try to escalate, if he’s convinced that would be the end and NATO countries wouldn’t escalate further.

  15. dazedandconfused says:


    Could be an opening bargaining position. I rather doubt Putin is having fun myself. More likely by far is this war is major PITA for him. It sure as hell didn’t go as planned anyway.

    Zelenskyy has to consider that come January the US might change sides in this war. It’s a distinct possibility.

  16. JohnSF says:

    If Putin hits the Baltics, Poland or Romania openly it’s Article 5 time.
    NATO has combat air and SAM assets in these areas, as well as multi-national land battlegroups, and their SHAPE tasking pretty certainly means they will engage as a standing order.

    “Implausible deniability” FSB ops are another matter.
    In fact, there are increasing indicators of sabotage operations already in progress across Europe.
    Russia is playing a dangerous game here.
    The Germans may tend to roll up in a ball of angst.
    Piss off the French, or the Poles, and they will hit back, hard and nasty.
    The UK is also inclined to sometimes fight dirty, if sufficiently annoyed.

  17. JohnSF says:


    “Zelenskyy has to consider that come January the US might change sides in this war”

    And if it did Russia would demand capitulation.
    If Ukraine tried to make “peace”, Russia would demand capitulation.
    If there was a truce, and the US changed sides, Russia would demand capitulation.
    If there was a truce, and the US did not change sides, Russia would re-start the war when it suited, and demand capitulation.

    There is NO evidence, zero, none, nada, that Putin regard the war as a “major PITA for him”
    It did not go as planned, but every indication is that he still thinks he can get what he wants: Ukrainian capitulation.
    And that the Russian regime key support elements will not break with him on this.

    Short of a credible threat to the viability of the Russian army’s regime-sustaining role via destruction if it remains in combat, Putin has NO incentive not to continue to seek his goal in this war:
    Ukrainian capitulation.

  18. just nutha says:

    @dazedandconfused: Indeed. That’s what Putin is hoping for. And he may be better situated to play that particular long game, sadly.

  19. dazedandconfused says:

    @just nutha:

    I suspect Stoltenberg’s constantly saying that NATO membership is assured (even though that’s a stretch) AFTER the war ends is one of the hints that NATO is not committed to total victory. Cut a deal…if you can.

  20. just nutha says:

    @dazedandconfused: This is where you and I disconnect. You seem to believe that there’s a deal available and I don’t. Of course, if capitulation constitutes a deal for you, then I’m wrong.

  21. Mister Bluster says:

    The United States is now considering training Ukrainian troops inside the country,..

    Trainers. Just don’t call them advisors.

    Naval Advisors in Vietnam
    Beginning in 1950, military advisors helped the South Vietnamese resist North Vietnamese intervention. Naval advisors taught gunnery and navigation, accompanied South Vietnamese on combat patrols, organized specialized units, and created shore establishments such as naval stations and supply centers. Despite their limited numbers, lanuage barriers, and other obstacles, advisors helped transform South Vietnam’s navy from a small collection of vessels into a modern service capable of fighting on the rivers and at sea.
    Hampton Roads Naval Museum


Speak Your Mind