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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury

TARGET, RUSSIA!

I am fond of quoting the baseball player Yogi Berra: 'Making predictions is hard, especially about the future.' [1] Embedded in the ostensibly redundant second clause, there is a kernel of wisdom. In some ways, making predictions is easy – the challenge is in making predictions that come true. There are multiple futures and many outcomes are possible depending on what happens in the meantime; that multiplicity of possible futures is what makes accurate predictions so hard to make. Everything is contingent.


War is, by its nature, unpredictable. Russian officials have had a bit of a swagger throughout the spring, believing events in and around Ukraine were favourable for them. With both EU and US aid packages stalled by their respective political debates at the beginning of 2024, Russia had been able to make a series of gains on the battlefield. From late 2023 Russian forces launched a new offensive in eastern Ukraine and earlier this month began a concerted effort to capture Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city, which sits twenty miles from the Ukraine–Russia border.


On 1 February the EU approved a €50bn aid package and, in late April, US Congress finally approved its $61bn military aid package. Apparently these funds should be sufficient to support Ukraine's military effort through 2024. While it is still early days, some of that aid already appears to have helped to stabilise the frontlines. Russian troops' progress has visibly slowed. The window of opportunity that Russia sought to exploit is closing, for now at least.


Cross–border strikes?


A big question – perhaps the biggest question – being debated at present concerns Ukraine using weaponry supplied by NATO members to strike targets inside Russia. This had long been a hot potato among NATO members who have supplied weapons to Ukraine under the strict condition that they would not be used against targets inside Russia itself.


The reader might think that weapons suppliers can't actually control this, but it seems 'geo–fencing' has been used to prevent Ukraine from contravening agreed limitations. Geo–fencing uses GPS to create boundaries within which the weapons can be used; suppliers can programme the weapons systems so that a target cannot be selected inside the Russian border.


The reason NATO members have imposed these restrictions on Ukraine in the past is the belief that it risks sparking a bigger war. The US has been especially active in this regard: it reportedly adapted HIMARS rocket systems it supplied to include geo–fencing for this end. Though adding that technology itself creates a vulnerability in so far as it could be hacked and the limits manipulated, suggests this article.


Sea change


The position on such restrictions has changed recently. The UK's Foreign Secretary said that missiles supplied by the UK could be used at Ukraine's discretion. 'Let's be absolutely clear,' he said, 'Russia has launched an attack into Ukraine and Ukraine absolutely has a right to strike back at Russia.'


Now NATO's Secretary–General has raised the issue in public discussion. He says the time has come for NATO allies to 'consider' lifting the restrictions they have placed on Ukraine in how it uses the weapons that they have donated. Jens Stoltenberg wouldn't make this statement unless many NATO members were in discussions about removing these restrictions. More importantly, he wouldn't do it unless there was ambivalence in the US that he thought protected him from outright censure.


As yet, President Joe Biden has not agreed to removing restrictions on Ukraine's use of weapons supplied by the US – but he is under growing pressure from some politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, as well as internationally. His position remains unchanged, however. 'We don't encourage or enable the use of US–supplied weapons to strike inside Russia,' said the US National Security Council spokesperson this week.


The immediate reason for the changed viewpoint among US allies in NATO stems from observing the renewed battle for Kharkiv over recent weeks. As already mentioned, the city is a mere twenty miles from the Ukraine–Russia border. With the frontline and international border almost coterminous, the restrictions imposed on Ukraine give the aggressor an obvious advantage. Russia can fire missiles from inside its own territory with an impunity of sorts. That cannot be sustained. France's Emmanuel Macron has cottoned on to the problem. Speaking on a visit to Germany yesterday, Macron pointed at a map: 'How can we expect Ukraine to defend its cities without allowing it to neutralise the sites [inside Russia] missiles are being fired from?'


Another reason for growing confidence is that Ukraine has successfully used drones to strike inside Russia without prompting an escalation. Ukraine has been striking oil depots 1,000km or more inside Russia. The shift among NATO members therefore also reflects doubts Russia will retaliate against them as weapons suppliers.


Predicting the future


The direction of travel today is pretty clear. Soon, one imagines, the US will formally allow Ukraine to use its weapons systems against Russian targets as it must do if it is serious about supporting Ukraine's ability to defend its territory. As to what happens then is anyone's guess. Russia's Vladimir Putin warned yesterday that there would be 'serious consequences' to Ukraine's backers if they allow weapons to be used to strike inside Russia. But Putin has made such statements repeatedly during the war without a major escalation.


Ukraine cannot fight with one hand tied behind its back. The geo–fencing should be disabled on US systems and approval given to Ukraine's armed forces to strike military targets directly involved in the fighting round Kharkiv, on whichever side of the border those targets are located.


There are constraints on Russia's ability to respond. It is not obvious that Russia has the resources to fight a larger war right now (even though its military production levels have been ramped up) and deciding to start a war with NATO appears a foolish calculation. The alternative is that Russia escalates its attacks inside Ukraine. It could, for example, use a tactical nuclear weapon on the battlefield, but western officials think that unlikely because both China and India were long ago understood to have warned Putin against such a step.


There are no guarantees about what happens once the limitations on Ukraine's use of weapons are removed. NATO members can hope Russia will be too constrained to do anything much, yet they need to be prepared regardless. With China recently conducting military drills that involved encircling Taiwan as it likely would to launch an invasion of the island, and with the Middle East febrile, there are many variables in play that could influence the chances of other actors choosing to support Russia more overtly or of conflicts joining up into a global war.


There will be peace talks in Switzerland in mid–June concerning Ukraine. Peace, regrettably, feels very far off.



Thank you for reading! You can support this blog by buying me a coffee.

Footnote: [1] Whether Berra said this is contested; I'm aware that the quote has been attributed to others.

Cover image: Vietnamese soldiers. Public domain image from the defunct US Information Agency.

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