The Biden Administration’s support for cross border strikes on Russian forces is a welcome decision. Yet it is really more of the White House’s just enough’ strategy, which is merely reactive in its response to Russia’s aggression that cedes the Kremlin the initiative on the battlefield.

Fine print matters. In carefully worded releases regarding rules of engagement – actually restrictions placed on Ukraine which allows for “limited strikes inside Russia with American-made weapons … for counter-fire purposes in the Kharkiv region … against Russian forces that are attacking them or preparing to attack them.”

Even this limited approval does not apply to the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) - the very weapon system Ukraine needs the most if it is to protect Kharkiv.

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As one US official commented, "Our policy with respect to prohibiting the use of ATACMS or long-range strikes inside of Russia has not changed.” Washington took the one munition Moscow fears most off the table, then extended them the courtesy of announcing their policy so Russia could move their forces beyond the range of conventional artillery.

Now, Belgium is following Washington’s lead in regard to its delivery of F16 fighter jets to Ukraine. Last Wednesday Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo announced that military aid from his nation can only be “used by the Armed Forces on Ukrainian territory,” which includes the F-16 fighter aircraft. De Croo apparently got Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ‘small countries’ message.

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Why even provide the weapon platform if Ukraine cannot use it to defeat Russian forces invading their country? 

Belgium, of all countries, should understand this threat. Belgian territory, after all, was the path Germany took to France in two world wars.

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Washington and Brussels need to remember this is a war. Wars require winning strategies – and these continuing NATO imposed restrictions risk taking Ukraine down a losing path.

War is “a continuation of politics by other means,” as Von Clausewitz described it in his treatise on war and military strategy: “Vom Kriege” (On War). It is “nothing but a duel on a larger scale” – a physical contest between people, each using force “to compel our enemy to do our will.”

Moscow gets that. NATO so far does not.

Ukraine is being forced to fight on conditions set by Russia – conditions of which are astonishingly enforced by the US and NATO. The resulting sanctuary it affords Russia inside its borders is a losing proposition for Ukraine. 

Why does NATO continue to accept Kremlin rules concerning where and how this war will be fought?

The Russian missile attack on a Kharkiv hardware store on May 25 tells us all we need to know, 830 days into this war. President Vladimir Putin is intentionally targeting and killing Ukrainian civilians – while the defense strategy of the US and NATO is not working.  

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The strike became the turning point, convincing many NATO countries to revisit their policy on striking targets in Russia.

Ukraine can intercept individual missiles and drones in-flight over their skies, but Russia continues to prove that some will get through via the sheer mass of weapons it fires.  When they do, civilians pay the price with their lives. 

The only thing that works is interdiction: the destruction of the weapon system, the associated radars and guidance systems, their crews, and the facilities where the missiles/drones are stored. The majority of these legitimate military targets remain inside Russia.

Air defense systems are part of the solution, but they have not stopped the carnage. The other half of the solution must be ATACMS.

Russia fears them – or at least the Kremlin did until the Biden administration took them off the table again. Moscow felt the wrath of HIMARS when the weapon system was first introduced last year. Putin knows the impact ATACMS munitions can have on his ground forces inside of Russia if authorization is provided to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his generals.

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Interdiction must become Washington and Brussels watchword of the day. Army Field Manual 1-02.1 Operational Terms defines interdiction as “an action to divert, disrupt, delay, or destroy the enemy’s military surface capability before it can be used effectively against friendly forces, or to otherwise achieve objectives.” 

Yet, as Ukraine knows all too well, these enemy capabilities reside on the Russian side of the border. And therein lies the challenge for the West to overcome NATO’S collective escalation fears that has metastasized into escalation paralysis

Instead of interdicting, Ukraine was forced to wait for Russian forces to fire first or cross the border. now, once Moscow adapts to the range limits of placed on US weapons for use inside Russia near Kharkiv, Kyiv will be forced to wait again.

By contrast, no such restrictions are imposed by the Pentagon on US forces operating in the Middle East. CENTCOMis authorized to proactively conduct – “self-defense strikes to defeat an imminent threat.” Ukraine is still not permitted to do so if Russian imminent threats are out of range inside of Russia — and in no event may Kyiv use long-range ATACMS.

Oleksandra Ustinova, head of the Ukraine’s parliamentary commission on arms and ammunition recently commented while in Washington, DC that, “We saw their military sitting one or two kilometers from the border inside Russia, and there was nothing we could do about that… They [Russia] know there is a restriction for Ukrainians to shoot at Russian territory.”

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That is slowly changing. 

Finland, Canada, and Poland have authorized Ukraine to use their weapons to strike targets on Russian territory. They join eight countries – France, Germany, Denmark, Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden, Estonia, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands – who support the AFU striking military sites used to bomb Ukraine in Russia. 

Putin is angry as a result.

He warned of "serious consequences" if Western countries allow Ukraine to use their weapons to strike Russia. Putin added that, "This constant escalation can lead to serious consequences … In Europe, especially in small countries, they should be aware of what they are playing with."

Putin knows his audience. Especially Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan and his fear of “escalation.” Putin frequently wields this word against Sullivan and does so while raising the specter of nuclear escalation.

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Sullivan, seemingly, falls for it every time.

In reality, it is Putin who is continuing to escalate. Ukraine defending its sovereign territory with weapons provided by the West against a renewed offensive originating from the Russian side of the border is not escalation. It is a reaction to an action. 

The word Putin fears most is interdiction. He knows the HIMARS rocket system will decimate his forces.

Escalation is going to happen in Ukraine with or without US support. It is far better to get in front of it rather than continuously having to react to it, not to mention threatening to withhold support to Kyiv if they proactively defend themselves on the Russia side of the border.

Limited strikes for counter-fire purposes in Kharkiv, and no ATACMS will not get the job done. Retired Air Force General and former NATO Commander Philip Breedlove correctly concluded in a recent New York Post Op-Ed that, “The Biden administration is conveying to Putin that he will continue to have the upper hand because Washington will not permit Ukraine to do significant damage to the Russian war machine.”

Ukraine cannot win a war that the Biden Administration remains unwilling to let Zelensky and his generals win. Weaken (not defeat) Russia is still the strategy, despite Russia becoming slowly but gradually stronger and more aggressive the longer this plays out. 

The White House’s preferred end state seemingly is a negotiated conclusion that neither Moscow or Kyiv will accept – and one that is creating the conditions for another “forever war” in the heart of Europe.

It is time for a change. It is time for a much-needed winning strategy.

Biden needs to relieve Jake Sullivan of his duties and take the ATACMS handcuffs off the AFU. Doing so will help create escalation paralysis in Moscow – and set Ukraine down a path of winning the war and expelling Russia from all of its territory, including the Crimean Peninsula.

Copyright 2024. Jonathan E. Sweet and Mark C. Toth. All rights reserved.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the authors’ and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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