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Ukraine may need more than long-range arms

June 9, 2024

In early June, the United States and Germany agreed to allow Ukraine to use their long-range weapons to strike inside Russia. However, observers say, that's unlikely to change the course of the war.

Ukrainian soldiers use the German Patriot air defense system
Ukraine can now use the German Patriot air defense system against targets in RussiaImage: Sebastian Gollnow/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's government had hesitated for a long time: Should it allow Ukraine to use German weapons to strike targets in Russia? Officials were concerned that that might make Germany a party to the war in the Kremlin's eyes.

But, after the United States gave Ukraine authorization to use its weaponry for cross-border strikes, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz backed down from his reservations. Securing peace means "that we support Ukraine," Scholz said. He emphasized that it was important to weigh all the risks and consult closely with allies before making "such far-reaching decisions" and then he approved the use of German weapons to strike targets in Russia.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz stands at a lectern, his notes and a glass of water before him
On June 6, Scholz discussed the decision to let Ukraine use German weapons against targets in RussiaImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

So far, both the United States and Germany have authorized their weapons for cross-border strikes on the condition that Ukraine only use them for counterattacks to defend the Kharkiv region.

'The terrible dilemma'

Germany's Patriot anti-aircraft missile system, which has a range of about 70 kilometers (40 miles), has the capability to hit targets in Russia, as does the MARS II multiple-rocket launcher, which can hit targets roughly 80 kilometers away. In 2023, the US equipped Ukraine with ATACMS missiles, which have a range of 165 kilometers. The variant with the longest range can hit targets up to 300 kilometers away.

Russia's Belbek airbase near Sevastopol on the annexed Crimean peninsula, aerial shot
In May, Ukraine hit Russia's Belbek airbase on the annexed Crimean PeninsulaImage: Maxar Technologies/AP Photo/picture alliance

The decision to allow the use of these long-range weapons means that the United States and Germany have adapted to the new realities of Russia's war against Ukraine, Frank Sauer, an expert in international politics at the Metis Institute at Munich's Bundeswehr University, told DW. For a long time, Sauer said, Ukraine's allies looked on as Russia staged daily bombings of the country's major cities, especially Kharkiv, from its airspace and locations close to the border — with devastating consequences for civilians.

"Now it is possible to fire on airfields from which these warplanes took off, destroying them on the ground and also affecting infrastructure such as runways, so that the number of these Russian attacks decreases and the civilian population can be protected," Sauer said. Assembly points for Russian land forces can also be reached with ATACMS and self-propelled howitzers, he added.

If Russian pressure on the Kharkiv region eases, Ukraine can better defend other sections of the front, Sauer said. "Until now, we have been faced with the terrible dilemma of either protecting the front line or the civilians in the hinterland."

Firefighters put out a fire in a residential building in May
Firefighters extinguish a blaze at a residential building in Kharkiv, which has been under bombardment by RussiaImage: Andrii Marienko/AP/picture alliance

Shifting strategic considerations

The United States and Germany have realized that Ukraine "must be put in a position to take action against Russia, because otherwise it will lose," Andreas Heinemann-Gründer, a professor of politics and conflict researcher at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies at the University of Bonn, told DW.

Several factors have coalesced for Western allies to conclude that time is running out. For one, Russia is investing massively in its arms industry and war machinery, but these investments have not yet reached the battlefield, Heinemann-Gründer said. Additionally, further US support for Ukraine would be unlikely if Donald Trump were to be elected again in November. The European Parliament will also have a new composition in June, which could impact EU policy toward Russia.

Additionally, US and German fears of a nuclear escalation by Russia have clearly diminished, Heinemann-Gründer said. "It seems to me that the West has sent clear signals that it would not tolerate a nuclear attack on Ukraine and would take much more massive action against Russian targets," he said, adding that in a direct confrontation with NATO, Russia would lose.

Too late?

Although the use of US and German weapons against targets in Russia opens up more options for Ukraine, it might be too late to change the course of the war, won't be enough for a breakthrough in the course of the war, Sauer and Heinemann-Gründer said.

"The window of opportunity for shortcuts that could have drastically changed the situation has now closed," Sauer said.

Ukrainian strikes on Russian soil?

Under international law, Ukraine has always had the right to defend itself on the territory of the aggressor and not just on its own territory, Heinemann-Gründer said.

Even if Russian soldiers are killed when US or German weapons are used, this does not contradict the international law of war, but is part of combat, Sauer said.

"Of course, you can't target civilian infrastructure or civilians, or use excessive force that is disproportionate to the military objective," he said. But so far Ukraine has not done this, nor does he see any indication that it will. "On the contrary," he said, "so far, it is Russia that has been firing 500-kilo bombs into hardware stores, residential buildings and theaters."

This article was originally written in German.

Portrait of a woman (Jeannette Cwienk) with blonde hair and wearing a scarf and gray blazer
Jeannette Cwienk Writer and editor with a focus on climate and environmental issues