No matter who fired the missile that struck inside Poland’s border, “Russia bears ultimate responsibility for this incident.”
Those are the words of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin during a press conference on Wednesday, and he is right on. He added that, should the missile turn out to be an off-course Ukrainian defense weapon, “Ukraine has a bedrock right to defend itself.”
Indeed. This week’s Russian terrorist barrage of up to 100 missiles aimed at civilian targets across Ukraine — mostly trying to knock out the civilian power grid as winter advances — is a war crime. Vladimir Putin is trying to freeze Ukraine’s citizens into pressing its government to surrender. Not a chance. They know they are battling a genocidal Russian regime for their very survival.
But Russian’s secondary aim is to frighten NATO members into pushing Kyiv toward “peace” talks this winter that would give Moscow a pause to rebuild its army. Putin no doubt hopes that, after the U.S. midterm elections, a Republican-led Congress will be less willing to approve more aid for Ukraine.
The Poland incident should send the opposite message in bold letters: The fastest way to end Vladimir Putin’s war is to give Ukraine’s military the air defenses and long range weapons it needs to beat Russia as soon as possible. As shown by Ukraine’s liberation of Kherson city last weekend, Moscow is losing its war of choice. The time to help Ukraine nail down its victory is now.
Fortunately, President Joe Biden and Austin stood firm this week against rapidly spreading reports that the administration was split over whether to push Ukraine to enter talks with Putin. Those rumors were fueled by remarks suggestions from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley that the Ukrainians should try to cement their gains at the bargaining table before winter.
Milley tried to walk back his position as he stood beside Austin at the press conference, saying “It is up to Ukraine to decide how, when, or if (with the emphasis on if) they want to negotiate.” But he added a caveat that showed a serious misunderstanding about Russian intentions, saying “You want to negotiate when your enemy is weak.” He continued, “There may be a political solution where politically the Russians withdraw.”
The opposite is true. At this point, Putin still appears to believe he can win this war by breaking Ukraine’s spirit, or exhausting the West’s willingness to pay the cost of supporting Kyiv. The Russian leader clearly hopes to buy time to rebuild his forces during winter — especially if he can coerce a ceasefire and peace talks. He continues to insist that the roughly 20% of Ukraine that Russia occupies, and has “annexed” via sham referendums, is Russian territory. Including Kherson.
“After the annexation, Putin [effectively] cut all ties to negotiation,” rightly said former Ukrainian defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk on Wednesday, during an Atlantic Council discussion. “Ukraine is obviously not going to recognize any annexation.” He added that Russian genocide and terrorism also rule out talks, referring to Putin’s determination to destroy Ukraine as an independent country and Russia’s massive attacks on civilians, including rape, torture, and abduction. “So we can’t do any negotiations with Putin,” the former minister added.
In case Putin was still pinning his hopes on collapsing White House support for Ukraine, Biden put the negotiation rumors to rest while at the G-20 in Bali. “I’ve been very clear that we’re going to continue to provide the capability for the Ukrainian people to defend themselves,” the president said. “And we are not going to engage in any negotiation. There’s no — nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. This is a decision Ukraine has to make.”
And far from collapsing Western support for Kyiv, the missile barrage and the Poland incident seem to have firmed up their resolve. After the seventh meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group on Wednesday — a group of defense ministers from dozens of countries that have been helping Kyiv — Austin declared, “It is amazing how many ministers said, ‘We’re going to do this as long as it takes.’”
However, the shorter that time frame, the better for Ukraine, the West, and the world.
Russia is indeed on the backfoot, with an exhausted, broken army and depleted munitions. Putin and his minions have stopped trumpeting his biggest threat — that he might use a tactical nuclear weapon. He no doubt recognizes that it would gain Russia nothing on the battlefield and would cost him dearly from the U.S. and NATO response. Top U.S. officials, including CIA director William Burns, have delivered this stark message directly to their Russian counterparts.
Moreover, on a recent visit by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Beijing, the German leader and Chinese President Xi Jinping jointly condemned any use or threats to use atomic weapons in Ukraine. The message to Putin from his vital Chinese ally couldn’t have been more clear.
Bottom line: Now is the moment for the Biden team and NATO allies to overcome their lingering timidity about sending long-range missiles and munitions to Kyiv so that Ukraine can push an imperialist Russia out of occupied territory. Now is the time to finally deliver every available air defense system so that Ukraine can stop Putin’s war on civilians. U.S. aid has been substantial, but still insufficient for victory.
Ukraine can win this war (and insists it will not stop fighting in winter) so long as the West provides these key weapons. And so long as a Republican-controlled House does not withhold the necessary aid to Kyiv, and sustain Putin for the longer term.