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U.S. did not encourage or enable Kyiv to strike within Russia, Blinken says

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference on Tuesday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The United States has not encouraged or enabled Ukraine to carry out attacks inside Russia, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, after drone strikes targeted Russian military airfields this week.

“We have neither encouraged nor enabled the Ukrainians to strike inside of Russia,” Blinken told reporters at an event with Australian ministers in Washington on Tuesday, emphasizing that the United States has provided equipment to Kyiv for defensive purposes only. He also noted that Ukrainian civilians are coming under attack regularly by Russian forces, as is Ukrainian’s energy grid as the winter sets in.

“The important thing is to understand what Ukrainians are living through every day with the ongoing Russian aggression against their country,” he continued, “and our determination to make sure that they have in their hands, along with many other partners around the world, the equipment that they need to defend themselves.”

Blinken’s clarification of Washington’s position comes amid frenzied interest in three separate attacks that struck Russian territory — two of which were hundreds of miles from the Ukrainian border — highlighting vulnerabilities in the country’s defenses, and suggesting a new boldness on the part of Ukraine’s military.

Ukraine strikes another Russian air base, showing vulnerability of defenses

The Kremlin has said Kyiv is responsible for the drone strikes at the Engels-2 base in the Saratov region and the Dyagilevo base in the Ryazan region on Monday, and an airfield in the city of Kursk on Tuesday. Monday’s attacks, Russian state-owned news agencies said, killed at least three people and injured several more.

Ukrainian officials have not officially claimed responsibility for the strikes, though they have appeared to celebrate them. A senior Ukrainian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive operation, told The Washington Post on Tuesday that all three attacks were carried out by Ukrainian drones.

“These were Ukrainian drones — very successful, very effective,” the official said of the strikes. The official added that the Russians have “sowed the seeds of anger, and they’ll reap the whirlwind.”

Blinken was one of several officials seeking Tuesday to distance the United States from this week’s strikes, as Washington walks a fine line between supporting Ukraine with weapons and aid, and avoiding being dragged into the war itself, with Russia threatening consequences if that happens.

At a separate press briefing in Washington, a State Department spokesman said President Biden “said very clearly some time ago, we are not enabling Ukraine to strike beyond its borders. We are not encouraging Ukraine to strike beyond its borders.”

“We are providing Ukraine with what it needs to use on its sovereign territory, on Ukrainian soil, to take on Russian aggressors,” he continued. “We have not provided Ukraine with weapons that it is to use inside of Russia. We’ve been very clear that these are defensive supplies.”

Still, he stopped short of condemning the attacks or assigning responsibility, saying: “I am not aware that anyone has officially claimed responsibility for the explosions that have taken place inside of Russia apparently over recent days.”

When asked at the same event at which Blinken spoke whether the United States was working to prevent Ukraine from developing its own ability to strike inside Russia, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said: “No, we’re absolutely not doing that.”

The United States has pledged more than $19 billion in security assistance for Ukraine, including Stinger missiles, air defense systems, combat drones and artillery equipment.

Russian President Vladimir Putin previously warned that Russia “will strike at those targets which we have not yet been hitting” if Washington supplies Ukraine with long-range munitions that enable it to strike Russian territory. In September, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Washington’s steady supply of military aid to Kyiv risks turning it into a “party to the conflict” in Moscow’s eyes.

On east front with Ukrainian troops: Constant shelling, no heat or coffee

This week’s strikes are the latest to target critical Russian infrastructure, after several explosions rocked Russian military sites in recent months. Ukraine has been cryptic about its role in these incidents, while Russian officials have sought to downplay the significance of the strikes and to minimize reports of damage.

Following Monday’s strikes against bases in Ryazan and the Saratov region, the Russian Defense Ministry blamed Kyiv but said the damage done was minimal.

In August, the Saki air base near Novofedorivka in Crimea — which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014 and has occupied since — was repeatedly rocked by blasts, bringing the conflict to a popular holiday destination for Russians. The following month, Ukraine reportedly struck the base of the Russian 3rd Motorized Rifle Division near Valuyki, close to the Russia-Ukraine border. And in October, Russia said Ukraine attacked “military and civilian” ships near Sevastopol in Crimea. These attacks were carried out, experts say, as a sign that Russia’s high-value targets are not off-limits.

An oil tanker near an airfield in Kursk, Russia, caught fire after a drone strike on Dec. 6, according to regional governor Roman Starovoit. (Video: Storyful)

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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