By Bret Stephens
In 2015, as Bashar Assad was losing his war to remain in power in Syria, he pleaded for, and got, Russian military intervention. President Barack Obama reacted with airy disdain.
“An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work,” Obama said that October.
It turned out differently. The Russian military, led by some of the same officers now commanding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, achieved an unexpected victory over a brutalized people and a self-deluded U.S. administration.
The key to Russia’s success was the deliberate, indiscriminate and massive slaughter of civilians. “Rescue workers in Aleppo reported that their cars and headquarters were among the first targets hit on Friday,” The New York Times’ Anne Barnard and Somini Sengupta reported in September 2016. “The effect was instant: Now, when people are buried in rubble, no one comes. Or it takes longer for them to arrive. Relatives are again exhuming relatives with their own hands.”
This is the approach that Putin, with the assistance of Iranian drones, is now adopting in Ukraine. On Monday, Russian strikes left 80% of Kyiv’s residents without water, according to Mayor Vitali Klitschko’s estimate. Dozens of energy facilities have also been hit. Ukraine’s Economy Ministry estimates that as many as 130,000 buildings have been destroyed in Russian attacks since the war began, including 2,400 schools.
The strategy is clear. Putin’s armies might be falling back in the field. But if he can freeze, starve and terrorize Ukraine’s people by going after their water supplies and energy infrastructure — while waiting for winter to blunt Ukraine’s advance — he might still be able to force Ukraine to accept some sort of armistice, leaving him in possession of most of his conquests.
That would count as a victory in Putin’s books, however wounded he might otherwise be. It would also be encouragement to China’s Xi Jinping as he eyes Taiwan and Iran’s Ali Khamenei as he tries to suppress weeks of protest that are starting to have the color of a revolution. Much more is at stake in the outcome in Ukraine than the fate of Ukraine itself.
What can the Biden administration do? More. And more quickly.
So far, we’ve had a policy of nick-of-time delivery of critical weaponry, such as the Javelin and Stinger missiles that saved Kyiv at the beginning of the war and HIMARS, the rocket systems that turned the tide of war over the summer. We need to switch to an approach that stays consistently ahead of the pace of war and weather.
On Tuesday the administration announced that it would soon be delivering to Ukraine two National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems, or NASAMS, with ranges of up to 30 miles. But there’s a hitch: Only “in the next few years,” according to a report in the Times, will Ukraine get to take delivery of the next six systems.
Ukrainians, whose country is nearly the size of Texas, need the systems now. If the United States can’t deliver them quickly, we can at least provide Ukrainians with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can give them vastly improved detection and defensive capabilities over much longer ranges.
The Biden administration has been considering the sale of four of the U.S. Army’s long-endurance UAVs armed with Hellfire missiles since June, but the request has been held up in the bowels of Pentagon bureaucracy for months over excessive fears that some of its technologies could fall into Russian hands. Why not approve the sale, increase the numbers and start training Ukrainians on the systems immediately?
We can also start charging the Russians for their wanton destruction of critical infrastructure, which the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has rightly called “acts of pure terror” and “war crimes.” I’ve advocated for months that we need to turn Russia’s frozen foreign reserves into an escrow account for Ukrainian reconstruction. And we should let the Russian people know that with each criminal missile barrage, they will be on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars in reparations.
Finally, the administration should warn Iran’s leaders that their UAV factories will be targeted and destroyed if they continue to provide kamikaze drones to Russia, in flat violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. If Iran can get away with being an accessory to mass murder in Ukraine, it will never have any reason to fear the United States for any of its malign behavior. Every country should be put on notice that the price for helping Moscow in its slaughter will be steep.
All of these options — and I could add others, including providing Ukraine with better armor and longer-range rockets that can reach Russian military targets in Crimea — carry risks. And the administration is right to think hard about just which risks are worth taking and which ones the American public will support.
Right now, however, the biggest risk is that Putin uses the same appalling strategy that worked for him in Syria, blanketing Ukraine in terror as it is blanketed in snow. Winter is coming. Let’s help Ukraine prevail before it arrives.