In something of a major policy U-turn, Washington has tacitly accepted the inevitability of Ukraine’s Armed Forces’ long-desired request to hit targets inside Russia. Earlier positions from the US centred on the importance of aiding Ukraine in what suited the West to consider a defensive war.
The brutality and longevity of the fighting – coupled with the Russian proclivity for deliberately targeting Ukrainian civilians – has led to a reversal, with Washington asserting that it cannot and will not tell Kyiv what to do with the military hardware it has at its disposal.
Yet, while Ukraine has embraced this new approach, it has thus far only done so with weapons of its own manufacture, nor has it embarked on retaliatory strikes on Russian non-combatants. It is unlikely that this will change. Kyiv’s war chest and continued supply of Western munitions, weapons, and supplies are contingent on goodwill towards Ukraine.
President Volodymyr Zelensky does not have anything comparable to the stranglehold propaganda that is at the fingertips of his adversary in the Kremlin and has instead relied on the true status of Ukraine as a blameless victim to win support in the West.
Leaving aside any assertions that a former comedy actor is less likely to order the deaths of civilians than an ex-KGB officer, it is obvious that any Russian non-combatants killed by Ukrainian activity would lead to an erosion in political and public support for Ukraine in the West – the continued cost of living crisis already has the potential to do damage in this regard.
Furthermore, Russia’s wholesale slaughter of Ukrainian civilians this year has not only made it into a pariah state on par with North Korea, but it has also proven what has been known since the 1940s – bombing civilian populations only galvanises resistance and has little effect on encouraging war-weariness.
However, striking military targets within Russia could have the opposite effect, especially when one considers that the public perceptions of this war could not have been more different between Ukraine and Russia. The idea that a country which Russians have been told could never put up effective resistance is actually winning, dragging their country into a grim battle of attrition, will do more to make Russian people doubt their leadership than any inhumane rocket attack against their cities. This benefit is naturally coupled with the idea that it will become increasingly difficult for Russian forces to mass on the Ukrainian border again.
The Pentagon’s change of heart is consistent with the changing nature of the war, and if Ukraine does become able to strike enemy military targets on a regular basis, Russia’s political will to continue to be as jaded as those Russian troops who have been issued with weapons and equipment from World War II.