Ukraine war at a turning point with rapid escalation of conflict
“By launching missile attacks on civilians sleeping in their homes or rushing toward children going to schools, Russia has proven once again that it is a terrorist state that must be deterred in the strongest possible ways,” Ukraine’s United Nations Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said at the opening of a General Assembly session scheduled before the assault to promote world condemnation of Moscow.
The attacks were the latest of many head-spinning events — from Ukrainian victories on the ground to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat of nuclear weapons use — that have changed the nature and tempo of the war in recent weeks, and raised questions about whether the United States and its partners may have to move beyond the concept of helping Ukraine defend itself, and instead more forcefully facilitate a Ukrainian victory.
So far, the U.S. supply effort has been deliberative and process-oriented in the kinds of weapons it provides, and the speed at which it provides them, so as not to undercut its highest priority of avoiding a direct clash between Russia and the West. That strategy is likely to be part of the agenda at Tuesday’s emergency meeting of G7 leaders, and a gathering of NATO defense ministers later in the week.
U.S. officials continue to express caution about precipitous moves. “Turning points in war are usually points of danger,” said a senior Biden administration official, one of several U.S. and Ukrainian officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss policy deliberations. “You can’t predict what’s around the corner.”
Russian leaders have cited their own turning point. Viktor Bondarev, head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament wrote in a Telegram post on Monday that the strikes were the beginning of “a new phase” of what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, with more “resolute” action to come.
Putin, speaking early Monday to his security council, said the attacks were retaliation for what he called Ukrainian “terrorism,” including the blowing up over the weekend of the strategic Crimean Bridge that is a crucial logistics route for Russian occupying forces in southern Ukraine.
The bridge destruction, for which Ukraine has only indirectly claimed responsibility, came after a steady stream of Ukrainian gains that buoyed both Kyiv and its Western supporters. In a surprise counteroffensive begun in early September, Ukrainian forces recaptured more than 1,000 square miles of Russian-occupied territory in the north east, followed by other gains in the south.
The Ukrainian victories, along with persistent reports of poorly equipped and low-morale Russian soldiers who fled the onslaught, abandoning equipment and leaving behind their dead, brought public criticism of the conduct of the war from inside Russia, including from some senior Putin advisers. Within days, Putin had called for the military mobilization of up to 300,000 civilians to bolster his failing forces. The humiliation was compounded by a chaotic implementation and the fleeing of hundreds of thousands of military-aged men across neighboring borders.
In what was widely interpreted as a reference to nuclear weapons, Putin threatened to use “all means available” to defend Russian-occupied territory, even as he moved to annex four Ukrainian regions. “I want to remind you that our country also has various means of destruction … and when the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, to protect Russia and our people, we will certainly use all means at our disposal,” he said on Sept. 21. “This is not a bluff.”
The mobilization and nuclear threats, the senior administration official said, were “signs of two things: Putin does know how bad he’s doing. … That was a question mark before.”
“Two, it’s definitely a sign that he’s doubling down. That we’re not close to the end, and not close to negotiations. Those realities don’t give anyone any great comfort here,” the official said.
Rose Gottemoeller, a former senior State Department official for arms control and nonproliferation issues, and former deputy secretary general of NATO, said: “The use of nuclear weapons is a dead end. It shows the final failure of [Putin’s] policy if he’s somehow driven into that corner,” Gottemoeller said. “It’s the final throwing of the dice,” thinking that “somehow … everyone will panic and all of their supporters will force the Ukrainians to sue for peace … I don’t see that happening.”
“I think we have to take these threats very, very seriously,” she said.
With the Monday strikes inside Ukraine, Putin was clearly trying to reclaim the initiative, but also to bolster the image of a unified strategy and leadership. In his security council remarks, reported by Russian media, he said the missile attack had been fashioned and recommended by his “Defense Ministry, in accordance with the plan of the Russian General Staff.” He made particular reference to the role of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, whose absence from public view in recent days had led to speculation that he had been fired.
For its part, Ukraine has long combined its profuse gratitude for Western weapons aid with demands for stepped up delivery of more, and more sophisticated, supplies. The counteroffensive on the ground brought calls for battle tanks to move into contested territory, which the United States and its allies have been reluctant to send. This week, Kyiv attached new urgency to sophisticated air defense systems.
A Ukrainian official, referring to a list provided by the senior military command, said Ukraine’s priority items include the Patriot surface to air missile system, MIM-23 Hawk missiles, attack drones and NASAMS (National Advance Surface-to-Air Missile Systems) as well as Israeli air defense systems.
Ukraine’s pleas found new resonance in some quarters of Washington after the Monday attacks, with senior Democrats, in particular, demanding that Biden move more quickly to supply Ukraine. “I am horrified by Russia’s depraved and desperate escalation against civilian infrastructure across Ukraine — including in Kyiv,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in a statement. “I pledge to use all means at my disposal to accelerate support for the people of Ukraine and to starve Russia’s war machine.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), a former senior official at the CIA and the Pentagon, tweeted that the need for air defense “is urgent given the scale of these attacks. Providing these systems is a defensive — not escalatory — step, and our European friends need to step up along with us to get the Ukrainians what they need.”
But there was little initial sign that the administration intends to change the relatively lengthy approval process by which it decides what weapons to send to Ukraine, and when. The process includes a U.S. analysis, based on its own reporting of conditions on the battlefield, of what Ukraine needs, a senior U.S. defense official said, and “second, do we have that stuff?”
“Third, do they already know how to use it? If not, what’s our plan to train them? Fourth, how are they going to sustain the stuff? Keep it in the field? Maintain it? Repair it? Spare parts? … If we can’t do those things, who among our allies and partners can do it?” the defense official said.
Once those questions are answered, the request and recommendation is vetted for comment and concerns from other government departments with equities in the decision before going to the White House, where President Biden makes a final determination.
When decision is made, delivery can be made within days for equipment taken from U.S. defense stocks, months if extensive training for use and maintenance is required, or years if particular items need to be manufactured. For example, Biden approved sending the NASAMS air defense system early in the summer, and defense officials have said that two will be shipped this fall, once the systems are ready and training is complete.
An additional six NASAMS, announced by the Pentagon at the end of August, will take years to manufacture. Patriot systems are already in short supply within NATO, and usually travel with their own U.S. or NATO operating teams — a commitment the West is unlikely to make.
Israel, whose prime minister on Monday for the first time condemned Russia, over the missile attacks, has its own complicated relations with Moscow.
“We certainly understand that we are at a potential inflection point here in the war, on many levels,” the senior Biden administration official said. “That thinking is baked into [our] decision-making. … Ukraine has certainly done better and been more aggressive recently, and Putin is feeling the heat on the battlefield, at home, and overseas. There is no question that is a different set of conditions.”
“But we believe that these changes on the battlefield and in Russia have only validated even more our decision-making process,” the official said.
Shane Harris and Alex Horton contributed to this report.