The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin wants to terrorize Ukraine into submission. It’s not working.

A woman cries near flowers left at the destroyed Amstor shopping mall in Kremenchuk, Ukraine, on June 28. (Oleg Petrasyuk/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Western leaders have been gathering in Europe this week for the Group of Seven meeting and the NATO summit, with Ukraine at the top of the agenda. The G-7 leaders reemphasized their “condemnation of Russia’s illegal and unjustifiable war of aggression against Ukraine” and promised to “stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

The Kremlin sent its rejoinder in the form of missile strikes on civilian targets in Kyiv and Kremenchuk. The Kremenchuk strike was particularly deadly: A Russian bomber apparently fired at least one Kh-22 cruise missile at a crowded shopping mall, killing at least 18 civilians and injuring many more. This is a war crime designed to send a message: Russian dictator Vladimir Putin wants to make clear that neither the government in Kyiv nor its allies in the West can protect Ukrainians from his military machine. Putin is trying to break the will of his enemies. It’s not working (in a new poll, 89 percent of Ukrainians rejected sacrificing land for peace), but he has not yet lost hope he can still prevail.

Most likely the Butcher of Bucha calculates that he can eventually take all of the eastern Donbas region, where his forces have been making incremental progress. His military could then shift its focus toward Odessa, Ukraine’s last remaining Black Sea port. If Putin were able to conquer all of eastern and southern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky would be left to govern what would effectively be little more than the medieval principality of Kyiv. Russia is pursuing a crueler version of the Union’s Anaconda Plan designed to batter the Confederacy during the Civil War into starvation and submission.

Putin must be thinking , as winter arrives, western Europeans will decide that having Russian natural gas to heat their homes is more important than the fate of Ukraine. Notwithstanding Russia’s foreign debt default, he can take heart from the fact that, despite Western sanctions, Russian energy revenue are surging. Moscow earned a record $97 billion in energy exports in the first 100 days of the war in Ukraine. With Russia’s Black Sea blockade threatening a famine in Africa and the Middle East, and the Ukrainian economy imploding, the Kremlin has cause to think it can withstand the economic showdown better than its adversaries.

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That’s Putin’s argument for victory. But Zelensky also has a case for optimism. The initial Russian attempt to seize Kyiv, beginning on Feb. 24, badly failed and Russia was sent reeling with heavy losses of men and materiel. In mid-April, Russia withdrew from northern Ukraine and concentrated its forces in the Donbas. Yet more than two months later, Russia has made only “marginal advances” while its army is being “hollowed out.” (The British defense secretary just said that 25,000 Russians have been killed in Ukraine.) On June 24, Ukrainian forces staged a fighting withdrawal from the city of Severodonetsk after making the Russians pay a heavy price for its conquest. The Ukrainians are still hanging onto the nearby city of Lysychansk but might have to evacuate it soon.

If the Russians take Lysychansk, they will be in control of virtually all of Luhansk province, but the Ukrainians will still control roughly half of Donetsk, the other province that makes up the Donbas region. Western military analysts expect that Russia will soon exhaust its offensive capabilities; even a country as large as Russia cannot fire 60,000 artillery shells a day indefinitely. Sooner or later, its stockpile will be depleted.

Ukraine, for its part, is running out of rounds for its old Soviet-era artillery and rocket launchers but it is incorporating new 155mm artillery and rocket launchers from the West. Ukraine just received the first four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) from the United States — and there is cause to think these highly precise rocket launchers, with a range of roughly 40 miles, are already making a difference.

Ukraine has reportedly been using the HIMARS and an old Soviet-era ballistic missile system called the Tochka to target Russian ammunition dumps. If the Ukrainians can impede the flow of shells to Russian batteries, they can neutralize Russia’s most effective weapon and go on the counteroffensive in the east — as they are already doing around Kherson in the south.

At the beginning of the war, most observers expected a quick Russian victory. When that didn’t materialize, many expected a quick Russian defeat. That didn’t happen either. Both Russia and Ukraine have displayed greater resilience than their naysayers foresaw. Today, with both sides still thinking they can win, the fighting rages on. But while the war in the east appears deadlocked, a military stalemate can break with shocking rapidity: Witness the Russian collapse on the Eastern Front in 1917 and the German collapse on the Western Front in 1918.

From the Western perspective, there is no alternative but to keep sending far more weaponry and ammunition to Ukraine. There will be no peace until either Russia or Ukraine is defeated — and we had better hope it’s not Ukraine. Russia’s strike on the Kremenchuk shopping mall, using precision weapons to kill the innocent, is a reminder of the stakes involved: The Russians stand for barbarism and despotism, while the Ukrainians fight for democracy and self-determination.

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