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Biden team hails ‘lightning speed’ call on strikes in Russia. Meanwhile, Kharkiv burned.

The White House this week said it moved at “lightning speed” to allow Kyiv to use U.S. weaponry to strike limited targets inside Russia, just 17 days after Ukraine came begging for the capability. But for Ukrainians who have weathered a punishing Russian assault on the northeast Kharkiv region, those 17 days of waiting are emblematic of a White House that has lagged repeatedly behind battlefield developments at the cost of Ukrainian lives.

The new policy is aimed at shifting the strategic balance in a vital border region that is home to Ukraine’s second-largest city — an area that, if it fell, could crack the gate to a broader rout of Kyiv’s forces. Russia’s military has been attacking there for months, knowing that Ukraine’s strength is at a low point because of a seven-month lag in U.S. military assistance following congressional delay.

But until Thursday, President Biden had fiercely guarded a ban on Ukraine using U.S. military equipment to strike inside Russian territory. The fear was that the Kremlin would view those attacks as a dangerous provocation, tantamount to a direct U.S. attack on Russian soil.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky offered measured appreciation on Friday after Biden changed course on the weapons limits. For front-line soldiers, though, the gap between May 13, when Ukraine formally requested the change, and May 30, when U.S. officials gave the green light, was a bitter stretch of some of the most brutal attacks in the two-year-old war.

The assault on Kharkiv, located just 25 miles from the Russian border, and the region around it, was designed with Moscow’s understanding that U.S. restrictions limited Ukraine’s ability to strike back, Ukrainian military officials say. Thousands fled their homes as the Kremlin took advantage of being able to hit Ukrainian territory from the Russian side of the border, having spent months building up forces there with relative impunity.

Now Ukrainians can use U.S.-provided rockets and artillery to hit some Russian positions behind the front lines, potentially delivering relief to Kharkiv, where the front has mostly stabilized. Still, there are doubts in Kyiv, Washington and across European capitals about whether the change will be enough to transform battlefield conditions or turn back Russian forces. Biden is still refusing to let Ukraine use long-range U.S. weapons to strike airfields and other targets deeper inside Russian territory.

A missile attack on Kharkiv early Friday killed seven people, hours after the policy shift took effect, illustrating the challenge.

“We just pay with blood,” said Vsevolod Kozhemyako, the founder of Khartia, a Ukrainian brigade that started as a volunteer unit and whose troops have been stationed for the last three weeks in open fields near the village of Lyptsi, about five miles from the Russian border.

“You can sit somewhere in an office in Washington and have a cup of tea for 10 minutes, and for 10 minutes here they can do 10 airstrikes and kill dozens of people,” Kozhemyako said.

As early as March, officials saw Russian forces mustering on their country’s side of the border with Kharkiv. An intense assault of glide bombs and other attacks started March 22, crippling energy infrastructure and plunging much of Kharkiv city into darkness. Ukrainian leaders were worried, but also aware of sensitivities in Washington as a $61 billion military aid package sat stalled in Congress.

Kyiv chose not to push to change the rules of engagement — even as U.S. officials also watched the situation on the ground with alarm. In March, national security adviser Jake Sullivan flew to Kyiv and urged Ukrainian officials to build defensive positions along the border near Kharkiv. But as troops tried to dig trenches and fortifications, Russian artillery hammered the area, making it impossible to move in earth-moving equipment. Soldiers had to dig with shovels at night.

In mid-April, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin grew concerned that the Russians could capture Kharkiv, and he began sounding warnings about a potential assault on the city, a defense official said, speaking like others on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions.

The Ukrainians’ calculation about asking for a policy change also evolved as attacks mounted in April and Ukraine aid was approved by the House of Representatives on April 20. Almost immediately, the United States began surging equipment to Kyiv to shore up depleted air defenses and artillery. But it came too late.

On May 10, Russia launched an offensive, and its forces quickly overran Ukraine’s northern border near Kharkiv, putting the already vulnerable city at risk of further attacks and — in a worst-case scenario — a possible Russian takeover.

Denys Yaroslavsky, commander of a reconnaissance battalion in Ukraine’s 57th Brigade, entered the border town of Vovchansk on May 2, accompanied by four battalions of exhausted troops. Fresh from the battlefield in a different northeastern city, they soon realized their new positions were the first line of defense — and that only 200 troops were already stationed in the town.

When Russian forces pushed in just over a week later, he said, “we lost almost the entire battalion.”

From just over the border, Russia launched nonstop glide bombs and artillery attacks against the Ukrainians. The losses they endured, he said, would have been avoidable if Ukraine had been able to strike into Russia with U.S. equipment, a long-standing desire on Kyiv’s part.

“If only we had a chance to strike the headquarters, munitions depots, troop gatherings and vehicles, the situation would have been totally different,” Yaroslavsky said. “Back then and now all the depots and headquarters are on Russian territory at this part of the front line.”

With little to lose as the Russians raced forward, senior Ukrainian officials appealed formally to Washington to use U.S. equipment to hit inside Russia on May 13, three days after the new offensive started.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due in Kyiv the next day, but there was an urgent appeal from the Ukrainians that couldn’t wait. Three of Biden’s top security officials — Sullivan, Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Charles Q. Brown Jr. — listened intently on a secure videoconference as their Ukrainian counterparts described their forces and civilians being battered by the Russian assault on Kharkiv.

Over 90 minutes, the Ukrainians made a pressing case to be able to use U.S. weapons to fire back over the border into Russia to prevent their city from being overrun.

“It was a detailed conversation” about the weapons they needed, Sullivan told reporters, and an appeal to “get us this stuff this fast so that we can be in a position to effectively defend against the Russian onslaught.”

After the videoconference, the three U.S. officials agreed that the Ukrainians’ appeal made sense and that a recommendation should be put to Biden.

On May 14, Blinken played “Rockin’ in the Free World” on an electric guitar in one of Kyiv’s crowded bars to show support for Ukrainians.

Yaroslavsky and his reconnaissance battalion were hunkered down in Vovchansk just hoping to survive. That day, he said, his troops weathered an “insane” number of glide bomb strikes — more than 40 in 24 hours.

As Blinken met senior Ukrainian leaders in Kyiv who repeatedly pressed him about the dire situation in Kharkiv, the officials back in Washington drew up a proposal.

On May 15, not long after Blinken’s train sped away from Kyiv’s main rail station back toward Poland, Sullivan went to the Oval Office to make the case to Biden. The president agreed with the call to relax the guardrails on Ukraine’s use of U.S. weapons, said a senior administration official. “It was decisive,” the official said.

But Biden wanted to see details.

“Then it was really just about building the policy, preparing to implement, and executing accordingly,” said the official. The president wanted his senior aides to “kick the tires” on the recommendation, a process that would take almost another two weeks.

As Blinken pressed the president about the seriousness of the situation once he returned to Washington, staff at the Pentagon and the White House worked through that weekend to draw up a fuller proposal.

The following week, Sullivan convened a meeting of Cabinet officials to finalize the policy, discussing which types of weapons could help blunt the onslaught of Russian troops and artillery that were wreaking havoc on Ukrainian forces and which weapons were off the table. Weapons like HIMARS rocket artillery — with a range of about 50 miles — would be authorized for strikes on Russian military positions across the border. But officials agreed there would be no change in policy barring the use of long-range weapons like ATACMS to fire into Russia.

Details were hashed out through Memorial Day weekend. The new policy took effect Thursday, and Zelensky confirmed the change publicly the next day.

That was “lightning speed” for the U.S. government, said a second senior administration official.

Some former U.S. officials agreed the change was welcome, but called it late.

“It’s clearly a step forward,” said former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine John E. Herbst, who is now a senior director for the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. “But that is certainly not lightning speed. If this is a priority, that could have been done a day or two after the president spoke. If it’s a priority, you get it done.”

‘Avoidance of escalation is not a winning strategy’

Front-line soldiers and top officials say that some of the Kremlin’s most nightmarish weaponry may still rain down on Kharkiv, since the White House remains adamant that Ukraine not use the most advanced systems for strikes into Russia. Given range limitations, the policy change likely won’t dent Russian attacks using glide bombs, which are launched from bombers deep in Russian territory and are extraordinarily difficult to intercept once they are in the air.

“This is a step forward toward (the) goal … of making it possible to defend our people who live in the villages on the border,” Zelensky said Friday during a visit to Stockholm — a measured statement that made clear he still hopes to widen his ability to strike into Russia.

The administration sees air defenses as the answer to glide bombs, and is making a push to get more of them to Ukraine, including through allies. It is “a matter of utmost priority,” Sullivan told reporters last month.

Still, Ukraine may be making use of their newfound flexibility. The Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday announced that its air defense systems downed 14 U.S.-made HIMARS rockets in the past 24 hours. The governor of the Belgorod region, Vyacheslav Gladkov, also detailed extensive attacks, though it was unclear whether any had been launched by U.S.-made systems that had previously been held out of the cross-border fighting.

Some of Ukraine’s fiercest backers say they feel that Biden’s decision is still too constricting.

“The core problem is that avoidance of escalation is not a winning strategy,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis in an interview. “If we would really allow Ukraine to win this war, then all the questions would be answered much easier. … Decisions that come late cost lives and land.”

As of Friday, Yaroslavsky wasn’t sure how far he’d be able to hit into Russia. If the range is only close enough to strike infantry groups, “it is nothing,” he said. Not being able to strike deeper at the S-300 launchers — a Russian air-defense missile system that has been reconfigured for strikes at ground targets — and airfields for the planes that carry long-range bombs, he said, “will not dramatically change the situation.”

For now, he is likely to be disappointed.

Glide bombs have scarred the Kharkiv region, killing civilians and soldiers in massive blasts. The only viable solutions are to either shoot down the planes with limited air defense systems or destroy them on the ground. But the restrictions on using long-range U.S. missiles, such as ATACMS, means those air bases are out of reach — and Ukraine is also short on air defense. Voronezh Malshevo, the primary installation from which Russian fighter jets and bombers launch attacks into Kharkiv, is more than 100 miles from the border.

Some analysts said they felt it was only a matter of time before the prohibitions loosen again, though others said there is no indications the policy would be replicated or expanded.

“The big question for me is, will the parameters expand, allowing Ukrainians to make broader use of U.S. weapons against legitimate military targets in Russia,” said Eric Edelman, counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and undersecretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009. “If past is prologue, that is likely to happen, but how quickly it does could make a difference on the battlefield.”

Front-line commanders say they still have a problem.

“It is painful to watch those missiles flying over our heads toward Kharkiv and thinking if your home would be destroyed this time,” said Ded, a drone commander in Ukraine’s 92nd Brigade deployed near the border who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his call sign due to military protocol.

“There is nonstop pressure on our position,” he said.

Kozhemyako, the founder of Khartia, also said his troops had suffered punishing hits as Washington deliberated the policy shift. Over the past 20 days, he said, they have come under 250 glide bomb strikes, attacks so powerful that even those who are not badly wounded or killed are often traumatized and concussed by the shock waves. After the airstrikes, Russian ground troops then storm their positions, he said.

He noted the irony that among the weapons that Washington has now allowed the Ukrainians to use across the border is HIMARS, a rocket system that has fallen prey to Russian electronic jamming. To make a real difference, Kozhemyako said, they need Washington to approve using everything they have.

“The American president should be brave,” he said.

O’Grady and Khudov reported from Kyiv. Meg Kelly in Washington contributed to this report.

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