Ukraine Forced to Fight With One Hand Tied Behind Back

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 84

(Source: Realna Viina)

Executive Summary:

  • The ban on Ukraine’s use of Western-supplied weapons to strike targets in Russia significantly disrupts the country’s defense capabilities.
  • Preemptive strikes on Russian assembly areas and air bases would be easier and more cost-effective than countering troops and bombers along the contact line.
  • Ukraine has a proven track record of highly effective and precise strikes with Western weapons exclusively on Russian military targets and has gone to great lengths to limit civilian casualties.

On May 25, Russian forces conducted an air strike on Ukraine using at least two glide bombs. The target was the Epicentr supermarket in a residential part of Kharkiv (Ukrainska Pravda, May 25;, May 29). After the attack, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy condemned the strike, saying it was “another manifestation of Russian madness” and calling for more air defense assets to save Ukrainian lives (, May 25). Kharkiv is located around 30 kilometers (around 18.6 miles) from the Russian border, and the range of glide bombs, depending on weight and launch altitude, is around 40–70 kilometers (25–43.5 miles). This means Russian pilots can launch glide bombs from Russian territory with no threat to their positions. According to Ukrainian Minister of Defense Rustem Umerov, since the beginning of 2024 alone, Russia has dropped almost 10,000 guided bombs on Ukraine (, May 25). In most cases, for missions in the Kharkiv direction, Russian bombers take off from the Baltimor airbase near Voronezh, which is around 200 kilometers (around 125 miles) from the Ukrainian border. This airbase was likely used as the launch site for the May 25 attack (, May 25). These attacks demonstrate that Moscow is already using all means at its disposal in its invasion. Washington’s recent authorization for Kyiv to use US-supplied munitions on Russian military targets only in the Belgorod region is a step in the right direction, but such limitations hamper Ukraine’s defenses (Kyiv Post, June 3). To adequately defend its territory and people, Ukraine needs the option of striking the origin of Russian attacks and other military targets no matter where they are located within Russia.

Deploying several additional air defense systems, including the MIM-104 Patriot, would cover the city of Kharkiv and almost the whole Kharkiv region from air strikes and prevent Russian jets from flying with impunity. Previously, after a long series of Russian air strikes, the Ukrainian Armed Forces ambushed the Russian troops in the Bryansk region, destroying four aircraft in one day (BBC Ukraine, May 13, 2023). As a result, Russia ceased launching air strikes in the Chernihiv region for a long time. A similar ambush was carried out in southern Ukraine in December 2023 (Texty, December 22, 2023). These attacks demonstrate how Ukraine’s proactive strikes helped cease Russian air strikes on other regions. 

A more efficient, safe, and cost-effective tactic for Ukraine would be to destroy Russian fighters and bombers while at their own airfields. During Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive, Russian Ka-52 attack helicopters, armed with guided missiles, presented one of the biggest threats to Ukrainian armored vehicles in the Zaporizhzhia region. For a long time, Russian pilots could carry out their attacks with near impunity and almost no losses (NV, August 15, 2023).

The situation changed dramatically after a highly successful Ukrainian strike on Russian airfields near the temporarily occupied cities of Berdyansk and Luhansk on October 17, 2023. This was the first use of ATACMS missiles in Ukraine, which destroyed at least nine helicopters, an ammunition and fuel depot, and significantly damaged airfield infrastructure (TSN, October 17, 2023). As a result of the ATACMS missile strike on May 15, at least three Russian fighters were destroyed, and at least one more was damaged (The Moscow Times, May 17).

US-supplied ATACMS have proven highly effective against a wide range of Russian targets, not only airfields and aircraft. On May 19, the Ukrainian Navy announced that a missile strike had destroyed the “Kovrovets” minesweeping vessel near Sevastopol Bay (, May 19). Later, information began to emerge about the possible destruction of another ship, the “Cyclone” missile corvette of the 22800 Karakurt-class project. An open-source intelligence investigation, later confirmed by Ukrainian naval officials, first claimed the ship had been sunk (;, May 21).

Perhaps the most impressive strike thus far was on a Russian S-400 air defense system positioned near Mospyne in the Donetsk region on May 22 (LB, May 24). Video published by a Ukrainian air-reconnaissance unit showed how the most “modern” (according to Russian claims) air defense system launched at least six missiles but was completely helpless against the “not-so-modern” ATACMS missiles, which completely destroyed the Russian system (, May 24).

The Ukrainian Armed Forces, with the help of partners and its own assets, know the locations of Russian troops, their artillery, and aviation positions very well, often on Russian territory (, May 26). At this time, the main problem is the restrictions on Western weapons being used on Russian territory. Currently, the Ukrainian military must wait for the Russians to amass their forces, deploy combat formations, and prepare for an offensive with complete impunity. This not only complicates Ukraine’s defensive operations but also negatively affects the morale of the military and is illogical in terms of tactics and strategy.

US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s recent visit to Ukraine on May 13 jump-started discussions on lifting the restrictions. Many Western politicians and experts, including former UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, back this call (Kyiv Post, May 24;, May 25). US Congressman Michael Turner, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, published a written appeal to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “to authorize Ukraine to use weapons capable of striking targets within Russia under certain circumstances” (, May 21). North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also called for an end to the ban on Ukraine’s use of Western-supplied weapons to strike targets in Russia in an interview with the Economist (The Economist, May 24). On May 28, French President Emmanuel Macron also stated that he would allow Ukraine to strike Russian territory with French-supplied weapons (Izvestiya, May 28). Finally, US media reported that President Joe Biden had earlier secretly granted permission to attack Russia, but only near the Kharkiv region (Politico, May 30).

On May 26, Zelenskyy warned about the new gathering of Russian troops near the border (Ukrainska Pravda, May 26). Such permission from Biden and other Western leaders could enable Ukrainian forces to prevent or at least limit the scale of a new potential invasion with preemptive strikes on assembly areas. Additionally, the restrictions on Ukraine are an invitation for Russia to launch new attacks without the threat of serious damage to Russian territory.

Today, some Western officials are concerned about Russia’s reaction to violations of the so-called “red lines” and worry that such strikes will lead to “inevitable escalation.” Russia has already laid its own trap, however, by not responding to the strikes on the territories of occupied Crimea and Donetsk. Additionally, Russian officials have unofficially and repeatedly spoken about the alleged use of Western weapons on Russian territory—again, without any escalation (, May 24). Simultaneously, the Russian army has no restrictions on striking the territory of Ukraine, including with weapons received from Iran and North Korea. As a result of Russia’s actions, Western leaders have little excuse for prohibiting Ukraine from using Western weapons on Russian territory. The ban has meant Ukraine is effectively fighting with one hand tied behind its back, further prolonging this already lengthy war.