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ISW: Ukraine’s ability to hit Russian military targets with US weapons still heavily restricted

Biden’s policy change allows Ukraine to strike some Russian military targets within a small area, reducing Russia’s ground sanctuary by maximum 16%, with another 84% within the ATACMS range preserved, ISW says.
isw ukraine's ability hit russian military targets us weapons still heavily restricted atacms missile launch illustrative lockheed martin
ATACMS missile launch. Illustrative photo: Lockheed Martin
ISW: Ukraine’s ability to hit Russian military targets with US weapons still heavily restricted

The US-based think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) states that the Biden Administration’s limited policy change allows Ukraine to use US-provided weapons to strike certain Russian military targets within a confined area of Russian territory. However, this adjustment has reduced Russia’s ground sanctuary—areas within range of Ukrainian ATACMS—by only a maximum of 16%. As a result, US policy still preserves at least 84% of Russia’s ground sanctuary.

ISW says this policy limitation on the use of American-supplied weapons has effectively created a substantial sanctuary for Russia. This protected zone includes territory within the reach of US-provided weaponry, where Ukrainian forces are restricted from targeting Russian military infrastructure, including combat forces, command and control centers, logistics, and rear area support services essential for Russian operations in Ukraine.

Despite the policy shift, the vast majority of Russia’s operational rear and deep rear areas remain protected under US policy, which forbids Ukraine from using ATACMS anywhere in Russia, ISW notes. The policy change in late May 2024 concerning the use of US-provided weapons against military targets in Russia removed at most 16% of Russia’s ground sanctuary, assuming Ukrainian forces can strike all legitimate Russian military targets within the range of Ukrainian HIMARS using GMLRS in Russia’s Belgorod, Kursk, and Bryansk oblasts.

However, it remains unclear if Ukrainian forces have permission to strike all targets in those areas, ISW notes. Senior US officials have described Ukraine’s capability to strike into Russia with GMLRS as limited to counterbattery fire and geographically restricted to the Kharkiv area. They have also indicated that Ukrainian forces may strike Russian military objects “deployed just across the [Ukrainian] border,” suggesting restrictions against targeting Russian military installations deeper in the rear or in other areas of Kursk and Bryansk oblasts still within GMLRS range. US officials’ statements also suggest that Ukrainian forces may be constrained from targeting Russian military installations not actively involved in ground attacks against Ukraine.

ISW: “The Biden Administration’s limited policy reversal permitting Ukraine to use US-provided weapons to strike Russian military targets within Russian territory has removed at maximum only 16 percent of Russia’s ground sanctuary – a small area along the Russian-Ukrainian international border.”
ISW: “The US policy change, while a step in the right direction, is by itself inadequate and unable to disrupt Russian operations at scale. ISW assesses that the West maintains the ability to substantially disrupt Russian operations at scale by allowing Ukraine to use Western-provided weapons to strike Russia’s operational rear and deep rear areas in Russian territory.”

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