Ukraine hints it used Western weapons to strike inside Russia for the first time

Ukraine finally has a green light to strike inside Russia using U.S. weapons — and it may have begun doing so.

A senior Ukrainian official hinted Monday that Kyiv had hit a missile system inside Russia using Western weapons, just days after many of Ukraine’s allies, including the United States, approved their limited use.

That followed months of pressure to ignore threats from the Kremlin and lift the restrictions, which Ukraine said had hampered its defensive effort. Even as President Vladimir Putin’s officials repeated their dire warnings, Ukraine signaled that it may have fired its first shots in this new reality, leaving observers to question what it could mean for the wider war.

A now-deleted post Monday on the Telegram messaging app from Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk showed a photo of what appears to be a burning military truck.

“It’s burning well. This is a Russian S-300. On Russian territory. The first days after permission to use Western weapons on the enemy’s territory,” her post read.

Vereshchuk did not provide any details about where in Russian territory the missile system was allegedly hit or when. She also did not specify if the weapons used in the strike were supplied by the U.S. NBC News could not verify whether the photo she posted showed an S-300 missile system, which is used for air defense.

Ukraine’s defense ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News.

Some influential Russian military bloggers were also abuzz Monday with photos circulating online of a Russian S-300 system that was purportedly hit in the Belgorod border region. One of the photos matched Vereshchuk’s.

The Institute for the Study of War also suggested in its daily report Monday that “Ukrainian forces struck a Russian S-300/400 air defense battery in Belgorod Oblast,” most likely with a high mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS) on Saturday or Sunday.

There was no immediate reaction from the Kremlin to Vereshchuk’s claim, but Putin warned last week that European NATO states were playing with fire and risking “global conflict” by allowing Ukraine to strike inside Russia.

Since then a number of Russian officials have echoed those warnings, including threatening nuclear retaliation.

On Monday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov issued a warning to Washington against miscalculations that, he said, might have “fatal” consequences. “For reasons unknown, they underestimate the seriousness of a rebuff they may receive,” Ryabkov said, according to the state news agency Ria.

But military analysts were unconvinced by the Kremlin’s rhetorical gambit.

“Ukraine is bound to show they can now do this and that S-300 is a legitimate military target,” Michael Clarke, visiting professor of war studies at King’s College London, told NBC News.

Moscow will likely try to find some other nonmilitary ways of getting back at NATO countries, including sabotage, Clarke said.

“Nuclear response is still a complete red herring, though they will keep talking it up to frighten everyone,” he added.

After Russia’s sweeping advance in the northeastern Kharkiv border region last month, Kyiv was desperate to strike Russian targets just across the border that were feeding the new assault, but was handicapped by the reticence of its Western backers.

Those reservations still appear to be playing into Washington’s thinking.

Biden’s loosening of the restrictions applies only to some U.S. weapons and only in the Kharkiv region, U.S. officials told NBC News last week.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Monday the administration would hold “talks” with Kyiv about further loosening the restrictions, after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested the shift in U.S. policy was still not enough.

Still, it could help Ukraine stop the Russians from making further inroads around Kharkiv, where their advance appears to have stalled.

Strikes against military targets on Russian soil, like the one alleged by Vereshchuk, will make Ukraine’s defenses “more proactive and resilient,” helping to stabilize the front lines, said Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, a government research group.

“The Kremlin is bluffing when it threatens nuclear weapons,” Bielieskov said, adding that breaking the nuclear taboo in response to such strikes would be difficult for the Kremlin to sell to a wider international audience.

“Therefore, we hope that this will become an additional incentive to remove restrictions on the use of ATACMS, which would be very useful for strikes on Russian airfields in the border region.”

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