WASHINGTON, May 26 (Reuters) – As the United States and its allies supply Ukraine with increasingly sophisticated weapons, Washington has held talks with kyiv over the danger of an escalation if it strikes deep from Russia, U.S. and diplomatic officials told Reuters.
The behind-the-scenes discussions, which are highly sensitive and previously unreported, do not impose explicit geographic restrictions on the use of weapons supplied to Ukrainian forces. But the conversations sought to reach a common understanding of the risk of escalation, three US officials and diplomatic sources said.
“We have concerns about escalation and yet we still don’t want to impose geographic limits or tie their hands too much with what we give them,” said one of the three US officials, speaking under cover of anonymity.
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President Joe Biden’s administration and its American allies are increasingly willing to give Ukraine longer-range weapons, including M777 howitzers, as kyiv fights Russian invasion forces with greater success than US intelligence officials had anticipated. The Pentagon’s announcement last week that Denmark would supply Ukraine with Harpoon anti-ship missiles would further extend kyiv’s reach.
After initially anticipating that Ukraine would be overrun by the much larger Russian military, US officials have recently expressed hope that Ukrainian forces can win the war and wish to arm them to do so.
US officials say the Biden administration is even considering supplying Kyiv with the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which, depending on the ordnance, can have a range of hundreds of miles.
But US intelligence has also warned of growing risks, especially given the mismatch between Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparent ambitions and the performance of his military. The coming months could put the war on a “more unpredictable and potentially escalating trajectory,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said during a Senate hearing this month.
The United States, by design, does not directly fight Russian forces, but Pentagon commanders are in constant contact with Ukrainian leaders and provided critical intelligence that allowed Ukraine to target Russian troops, on land and at sea, U.S. officials said.
A second US official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington and Kyiv had a common “understanding” about the use of some Western-supplied weapon systems.
“So far we’ve been on the same page about thresholds,” the official said.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West that supplying Ukraine with weapons capable of striking Russian territory would be “a serious step towards an unacceptable escalation”, according to remarks published on the Russian ministry’s website on Thursday. Foreign Affairs.
Russia attacked the capital of Ukraine and places away from the front lines of the fighting. But Ukraine has not reciprocated attacks on a major Russian city or carried out strikes deep within Russia, including on military targets such as arms manufacturers or supply centers far from the border.
Russian officials have repeatedly accused the Ukrainian army of carrying out cross-border attacks, including against a fuel depot in the city of Belgorod. He justified his invasion of Ukraine on the premise that Ukraine was a threat to Russia – an idea kyiv and the West reject.
In what a diplomatic source said was a clear indication that Kyiv understood the sensitivities of any cross-border action, Ukraine declined to confirm any involvement in the alleged incidents. The United States also did not comment.
American sensitivities were made public in April, when the Pentagon cited warnings from American intelligence services about the risk of a military escalation between Russia and the NATO alliance if the United States transferred planes from hunting in Ukraine.
Democratic Representative Jason Crow, who visited Ukraine last month and spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said he was not concerned about the risk of escalation and that Ukraine would use the arms supplied in the south.
Three months into the conflict, Russia is concentrating its campaign in the south after a failed attempt to capture kyiv.
“We must reiterate, as we do in all cases, that these weapons must be used responsibly,” said Crow, an Army Ranger veteran who sits on the Armed Services Committee and the Special Standing Committee on the Intelligence House in Congress.
“But I’m less concerned with the issue of escalation than making sure the Ukrainians can win now and push back the Russian forces.”
The first US official said Ukraine had many targets to hit inside Ukraine, and that was the goal of getting longer-range weapons from Western allies.
Douglas Lute, a former US ambassador to NATO and a retired army lieutenant general, agreed that Ukraine had enough Russian targets inside Ukraine to worry about.
But he acknowledged the risk of escalation and political division within NATO if Ukraine struck deep within Russia.
“It would trigger a divisive debate within the alliance. And, of course, the alliance doesn’t want that. Neither does Ukraine,” Lute told Reuters.
One question that remains is whether Ukraine might change its strategy if the war escalates, perhaps using US-supplied weapons in ways that were not originally intended.
“There could be scenarios where Ukrainians are so stuck that they feel they have to escalate further, but we haven’t seen that yet,” the second US official said.
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Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis
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