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'Please give us permission' to strike Russian territory, Zelenskyy asks Western allies

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked Western allies to lift the restrictions on donated weapons.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked Western allies to lift the restrictions on donated weapons. Copyright Omar Havana/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Omar Havana/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Jorge Liboreiro
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Since the start of the war, Western allies have asked Ukraine to refrain from using their donated weapons to strike deep inside Russia.

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Ukraine urgently needs the West's go-ahead to launch attacks on Russian territory with donated weapons, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Tuesday after signing a long-term security deal with Belgium that includes the provision of 30 F-16s fighter jets by 2028.

The deal, however, prohibits Ukraine from deploying the sought-after aircraft to strike targets located on Russian soil. This follows a long-held policy by Western allies that compels Kyiv to use donated weapons and ammunition strictly within its territory, parts of which are currently occupied by Russian forces.

Allies worry that if their equipment is employed to hit deep inside Russia, the war will escalate and trigger the activation of NATO's collective defence.

"Everything which is covered by this agreement is military material, military equipment, that is to be used by the Ukraine Defence Forces and that is to be used in the Ukrainian territory," said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

"That is the agreement that we made."

While expressing gratitude for the military assistance, Zelenskyy raised the stakes and directly asked Western allies to lift the restriction, which he argued has been rendered obsolete by the shifting dynamics of the battlefield.

"I think this is unfair," he said, speaking next to De Croo.

"But, and this is a fact, we cannot risk the support of our partners. That's why we're not using our partners' arms to attack the Russian territory. That's why we're asking please give us the permission to do that."

Zelenskyy used Moscow's new offensive along the northeast border as proof as to why Ukraine should be allowed to strike targets on Russian soil. 

Last Saturday, Russian air strikes against a supermarket in Kharkiv killed at least 16 people and left 65 injured, according to local authorities. The attack prompted international outrage and calls for criminal prosecution.

"They're shooting you and you cannot respond to them simply because we don't have the right to use the weapon," Zelenskyy said. "You receive the satellite images from your intelligence but there's nothing you can do to respond."

Debate gains traction

In recent weeks, Ukrainian drones have struck energy infrastructure, including oil depots and refineries, based in Russia in an attempt to harm the country's most profitable industry. The attacks have raised alarm among Western allies and earned a rebuke by the US Secretary of Defense, who warned of a "knock-effect" on the global economy.

On Tuesday, Zelenskyy defended his army's strategy and said his war-torn nation had the right to counter Russia's destruction of civilian buildings and energy systems. 

"Russia has started this war and it has ended our regular life, it has ended our electricity supply, our water supply by its airstrikes, and nobody was able to stop Russia from those attacks. Diplomatic means didn't help," he said.

"That's why our tactic was to stop and decrease their profit from energy resources."

Asked if the Western restriction would soon be lifted, the president said: "This is a long way and we’re trying to make it shorter and faster. I'm sure the result will be positive."

His comments come a day after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged allies to reconsider some of the limits on weapon donations. "By having too many restrictions we are tying one hand of the Ukrainian armed forces on their back," he said.

Ukraine has in particular pleaded with Germany to provide Taurus cruise missiles, which have a reach of up to 500 kilometres. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said this would be "irresponsible" and the matter was "out of the question."

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But with Russian troops making inroads and thrusting the war into an unpredictable new phase, the debate on restrictions is gaining traction.

After a meeting of EU defence ministers on Tuesday, Josep Borrell suggested that certain member states, which he did not name, were willing to lift the prohibition. Borrell noted that striking military targets on Russian soil was a "legitimate action under international law when it is being used in a proportionate manner" and self-defence.

"Member states have different approaches," the foreign policy chief said. "I know some who are strongly opposed to it and others who are definitely in favour."

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