July 2

Easing Restrictions on Striking Russian Territory Protected Kharkiv from S-300 Missiles—Lifting Them Completely Will Save Even More Lives

Throughout the second half of May, as Russia launched its offensive on the Kharkiv axis, discussions intensified about the need to lift the ban on using Western precision weapons, particularly of American origin, against targets on Russian territory. By the end of the month, a positive outcome seemed imminent, and on May 30, several major media outlets (1, 2) reported that the Biden Administration had informed its Ukrainian counterparts that the ban had been lifted. On May 31, the White House publicly announced the decision, which was later confirmed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. However, the ban was not entirely lifted and some caveats soon followed: Ukraine was permitted to use US-supplied weapons only in Russian regions bordering Ukraine and only against forces and assets posing an immediate threat. The debate over the interpretation of these restrictions continues to this day. However, it is now certain that Washington has given the green light for the use of HIMARS/GMLRS rockets in the border areas of the Belgorod region, while maintaining restrictions on ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles with a range of 290 km [180 mi]. The US has also specifically prohibited targeting Russian Aerospace Forces aircraft located on neighboring airbases.

On June 1, Forbes reported that Ukraine had already taken advantage of the White House’s policy change and struck a target in the Belgorod region. Two days later, the anonymous Telegram channel Dos’ye Shpiona [Spy Dossier], whose information has often been independently verified, published photos and videos of the aftermath of a strike on a S-300/400 SAM battery. The strike reportedly damaged at least two launchers, two ground surveillance radars and several tractor units. According to the same source, the strike occurred on June 1-2 in the Belgorod region.

Some time later, researchers from a Ukrainian OSINT project pinpointed the exact location of the strike near the village of Kiselevo, around 45 km [28 mi] from the Ukrainian border and at least 50 km [30 mi] from the nearest Ukrainian-controlled territory. The distance to the target and the nature of the damage allow us to assert with a high degree of confidence that the strike was carried out with HIMARS MLRS rockets.

When discussing the S-300/400 air defense systems and their role in this war, it is worth noting that since at least July 2022, the Russian Armed Forces have been using these systems not only for their primary purpose—to protect the skies—but also to launch missile strikes on Ukrainian territory. The S-300/400 missiles are capable of causing significant damage on the ground, while most air defense systems available to the AFU cannot intercept them. The city of Kharkiv has been particularly affected by such strikes. Since the beginning of 2024 alone, the city has been subjected to at least 17 S-300/400 missile attacks, resulting in 35 deaths and 205 injuries. According to our Volunteer Summaries on Strikes on Civilian Infrastructure in Ukraine and Russia team, a total of 84 people have been killed and 563 injured in Kharkiv by Russian strikes since the beginning of the year. Thus, S-300/400 missile strikes have been an important part of the Russian tactics resulting in terror of Ukraine’s civilian population.

It is also worth noting that the intensity of attacks on Kharkiv, as well as the entire region, increased sharply with the beginning of the Russian offensive. From May 10 to May 31, S-300/400 missiles struck the city at least six times, with 25 missiles used in total, according to the Washington Post. The same number of attacks was recorded in January during Russia’s last "winter campaign" of missile strikes on Ukraine. Between those two periods, only five strikes were recorded.

However, the notable destruction of a S-300/400 battery near the village of Kiselevo forced the RuAF to immediately reconsider their tactics and move such systems away from border areas. The battery’s destruction, which occurred on June 1 or 2, was followed by a sudden drop in missile attacks on Kharkiv. We have not recorded a single instance of these missiles being used against the city since June 1.

Ukrainian official statements corroborate our observations. Two weeks after the battery’s destruction, Governor of the Kharkiv region Oleh Syniehubov reported a significant drop in the number of S-300 missile attacks. Kharkiv regional prosecutor's office spokesman Dmytro Chubenko mentioned the same. Similarly, Ihor Terekhov, the mayor of Kharkiv, told the Washington Post that the number of attacks dropped from 25 (Terekhov likely meant the number of missiles used) in May to 0 in June. In total, we have evidence for only two S-300 strikes on the Kharkiv region for the month of June: one landed in the Chuhuiv district on June 7 and another in an unnamed location on June 13. Fortunately, there were no casualties in either of these two cases.

Consequently, the easing of restrictions on the use of high-precision weapons provided by the USA, coupled with skillful actions by the AFU, have not only improved the situation on the frontline but have also contributed to a substantial reduction in the number of strikes on the civilian infrastructure of the Kharkiv region, thereby saving the lives of dozens of civilians. However, the RuAF still retain the capability to strike Ukrainian population centers, including Kharkiv. The Russian Aerospace Forces are using bombers to drop Universal Inter-Branch Gliding Munitions (UMPB D-30SN) and bombs equipped with Universal Gliding and Correction Modules (UMPK) from a safe distance, 35 to 40 km [22 to 25 mi] away from the frontline. These munitions were added to Russia’s arsenal after the beginning of the invasion. The latter, in particular, were used for the strike on Kharkiv on June 22, resulting in three civilians killed and 56 wounded, according to the latest data.

However, we believe this threat can be at least temporarily reduced, if not completely neutralized. To achieve this, it is necessary to lift the restrictions on the use of ATACMS missiles against targets deep inside Russian territory. This would allow the AFU to target a significant number of airfields from which aircraft conducting missile and bomb strikes on Ukrainian cities take off.

Under such conditions, Russia would be forced to relocate its aircraft to more distant airbases. This strategy has already been observed in Crimea, which is entirely within ATACMS range and not subject to restrictions. Such relocation would disrupt the established logistics chains supporting the aircraft, similar to the issues Russia faced when relocating the remnants of the Black Sea Fleet from Crimea to Novorossiysk and then to the Sea of Azov. As a result, Ukraine would gain a respite of several months, during which the Russian Aerospace Forces would be significantly limited in their strike capabilities and forced to prioritize targets, likely focusing on direct support to ground forces.

During this time, the first F-16 fighter aircraft are expected to finally arrive in Ukraine, potentially equipped with long-range missile systems. Additional SAM batteries, whose crews will have completed their training (training on Patriot systems in Germany takes about six weeks), are also anticipated. This will further reduce the threat of Russian missile and bomb strikes against Ukraine's civilian population. Increasing the supply of these types of weapons will enable Ukraine to directly contest the airspace over the battlefield.