Kyiv has right to strike Russian targets ‘outside Ukraine’, says Nato chief

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Ukraine has the right to strike “Russian military targets outside Ukraine” in line with international law, the Nato secretary-general has said for the first time since the start of the full-scale war nearly two years ago.

Jens Stoltenberg earlier this week acknowledged that the use of western-supplied arms to strike targets in Russia had long been a point of contention among Kyiv’s allies, due to fears of escalating the conflict.

“It’s for each and every ally to decide whether there are some caveats on what they deliver, and different allies have had a bit different policies on that,” Stoltenberg told Radio Free Europe in an interview published on Tuesday.

“But in general, we need to remember what this is. This is a war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine, in blatant violation of international law. And according to international law, Ukraine has the right to self-defence,” Stoltenberg added. “And that includes also striking legitimate military targets, Russian military targets, outside Ukraine. That is international law and, of course, Ukraine has the right to do so, to protect itself.”

A Nato official confirmed to the Financial Times on Thursday that Stoltenberg said Kyiv had the right to self-defence, including by striking legitimate Russian military targets outside Ukraine.

The comments represent a step up in rhetoric from Stoltenberg, who has previously referred to Kyiv’s rights under international law without explicitly mentioning attacks on Russian territory.

The debate over using western weapons to strike Russia is likely to intensify as some Nato allies begin to ship F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. The US-made aircraft, if armed with long-range missiles, could significantly increase the potential range of Kyiv’s strikes into Russian territory.

In recent months Kyiv has stepped up strikes on military targets inside Russia with drones and long-range missiles, including an oil depot used by the Russian army near St Petersburg.

However, due to western sensitivities around attacks on Russian territory, Ukraine has only ever alluded to its responsibility. A spokesperson for Ukraine’s air defence forces, Yuriy Ignat, said that Ukraine “as a rule, does not comment”.

France and the UK, which have already supplied Kyiv with long-range missiles, have been cautious about endorsing such strikes for fear of escalation with Moscow.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted last year that Moscow could strike western-supplied F-16s outside Ukraine’s borders, which he said risked bringing Nato into a direct conflict with Russia. “This seriously risks dragging Nato further into this armed conflict,” Putin said in June.” The tanks are burning and the F-16s will burn just as well.”

More recently, some Russian officials have threatened that further western backing for Ukraine could lead to a global nuclear war.

“We should do everything to stop [nuclear war] happening, but the clock is ticking faster and faster,” Dmitry Medvedev, a former president and prime minister, said in an interview published on Thursday.

“And in this I also see the impotence of western governments that are always saying the same thing: ‘The Russians are trying to scare us, they’ll never do it.’ They are mistaken. If the existence of our country is at stake, then what choice does our head of state have? None.”

Long-range strike capabilities for Kyiv have become more critical as the situation on the frontline becomes increasingly stalled in a gruelling artillery battle where Russian troops are able to outfire Ukraine’s by about three to one.

While Russia captured the town of Avdiivka last week, its first major battlefield victory since May 2023, the 1,000km frontline is largely static.

“It’s also important to actually recognise that even though the situation on the battlefield is difficult, we should not overestimate Russia and underestimate Ukraine,” Stoltenberg told reporters last week, noting that Ukrainian forces were able to carry out “deep strikes” into Russian-occupied Crimea and that they succeeded in sinking one of Russia’s ships in the Black Sea.

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