Since the initiation of US military assistance to Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion, the United States has sought to walk a fine line between helping Ukraine defend itself and provoking a broader war with Russia.
For this reason, the United States and the rest of NATO have refrained from engaging in direct military operations with Russian forces, opting instead for the strategy of providing significant military assistance to Ukraine, largely but not exclusively in the form of weapons that it would otherwise have. Not available to Ukrainian forces. Even here, the United States chose to provide weapons of a more defensive nature and suitable for the defense of the Ukrainian territory rather than other weapons that could allow Ukraine to strike deep in Russia.
Last month, the United States proposed providing Ukraine with advanced weapons, including missile systems with a range of nearly 50 miles, to continue its fight with Russia. These missiles are likely to be those launched by the Multiplexed Guided Missile System (GMLRS) and equipped with a Global Positioning System (GPS) so that they can be precisely guided at fixed, geographically defined targets. However, since missile strikes on Russia within 50 miles of the Russian-Ukrainian border could be interpreted as non-defensive, the administration obtained direct assurances from Ukrainian leaders that they would not use these missiles against targets within Russian territory.
Russian leaders may not take such promises at face value. But even if those promises were true and Ukraine had every intention of keeping them, in the heat of battle, these systems could still be used against these targets, accidentally or inadvertently. Such an incident would be nearly impossible to undo, and therefore could have dire consequences if Russian leaders did not believe Ukrainian assurances that they had not launched a premeditated attack on Russian soil.
The United States can significantly reduce the risk of an accident by exploiting the relevant GPS-enabled location awareness (GMLRS). In particular, it would be reasonably easy to create a hypothetical geofence around Russia that would prevent the GMLRS from operating in the event that anything was targeted within Russian territory.
In other words, the GMLRS system can be programmed to operate only to hit targets that were not located within Russia – if the system operator attempts to enter the coordinates of a target within Russia, the system will present a message indicating that the target is within range and the targeting and restricted area will be rejected.
The United States can implement this change in the GMLRS program and notify Russia of the change. Russia is unlikely to object. You may not believe US assertions along these lines, but if they do not, it will be no worse than it would be if the US did nothing to limit the GMLRS strike zone. Ukraine would have no reason to object because it has already promised to comply with the restrictions.
The focus of this proposal is not on the GMLRS per se, although the GMLRS is a good example. can be used with Which Location sensitive weapons provided by the United States, from munitions to platforms such as helicopters or drones. Thus, this approach allows to provide the Ukrainians with weapons of greater offensive potential while significantly reducing the risk of their use against targets on Russian territory. Disabling geofence restrictions is possible in principle, but can only be achieved with great effort.
The use of technological mechanisms to prevent targets inside Russia from being attacked with weapons supplied by the United States may have some value in reassuring Russia. But its greater value may lie in making the United States – or any technologically advanced Western country – more willing to provide such weapons.
Of course, the usefulness of this approach is based on the assumption that concerns about escalation are real and not a smokescreen that hides another reason for not wanting to supply Ukraine with heavier weapons. But if those concerns are indeed real, adopting this or a similar technology-based approach could help the United States walk what is today a very thin line between helping Ukraine defend itself and posing a direct military threat to Russia that could escalate uncontrollably. .
Herbert Lin is a senior researcher and Hank J. Holland Fellow at Stanford University. Served on President Obama’s 2016 Committee on Enhancing National Cybersecurity, a 2019 Fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, served on the Aspen Committee on Information Disorder in 2020 and was a member of the House Armed Services Committee (1987-1990). He is the author of “Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons” recently published by Stanford University Press.