When will the Ukrainian military finally retaliate for the ongoing destruction of their own country by striking back at targets inside Russia? The short answer is: When Ukraine’s partners allow them to do so.
Many people may not have noticed, but the United States and Ukraine’s other Western allies have been protecting Russia from Ukrainian counterattack ever since the invasion began on February 24. Ukraine has a legal right to hit back inside Russia, but is currently not being permitted to do so by partners whose support Kyiv cannot afford to lose. The US and others have placed limits on acceptable targets for the arms they provide, while also demanding assurances from Kyiv that these weapons will not be used inside Russia itself.
The current approach grants Putin impunity to continue attacking and escalating without fear of a proportionate response. It has resulted in a surrealistic war where the aggressor benefits from guarantees that any destruction will be limited to the territory of his victim.
This is particularly evident in the devastating recent Russian attacks on Ukraine’s critical civilian infrastructure, which will keep getting worse until Ukraine regains its right of retaliation. If Ukraine received the appropriate weapons and a green light from its Western partners to hit back against Russia’s own infrastructure, Moscow would likely think twice about its current bombing campaign.
Today’s war is arguably not the first time Russia has benefited from restrictions imposed by the West on Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. In 1994, the US and UK partnered with Moscow in the nuclear disarmament of post-Soviet Ukraine. There were a number of good reasons for this step, but the West should have provided Ukraine with a conventional deterrent force in exchange. It should do so now.
Self-defense is a basic right of every nation and includes proportionate lawful retaliation. This is essential in order to deter international aggression. Ukraine’s partners should be facilitating the country’s ability to exercise this right, not undermining it.
Restricting Ukraine’s ability to defend itself could lead to alarming international security consequences far from the front lines of the current conflict. It is one thing for the United States to restrain NATO allies which it is directly protecting, but it is quite another for the US to limit the right to self-defense of a friendly non-NATO country that it is helping only at arm’s length. This could establish a dangerous precedent and invite the invasion of other US allies.