Putin's nuclear threats and strikes on civilians rule out negotiations or an off-ramp
On Tuesday morning, as news broke of Russia's vicious missile strikes on civilian targets all across Ukraine, I texted a friend in the badly hit city of Kharkiv.
"We will not be intimidated," Oleksiy quickly texted back. (I am using only his first name because he is now serving with the Ukrainian army.) "Kharkiv is ready for this." He told me he was cooking borscht on a makeshift outdoor grill as we spoke because a barrage of Russian missiles had knocked out electricity in the city. The Russians had also targeted a children's playground, civilian apartment blocks, and a downtown crossroads at morning rush hour.
"We will win. We will teach everyone how to love their land and their home," Oleksiy told me. "There is an expression from 2014 [when Russia first invaded Ukraine]: 'You don't need to die for your homeland. You need to kill for your homeland!' That is our motto now." He meant killing Russian soldiers, not murdering civilians, as Vladimir Putin prefers.
Oleksiy's words are key to understanding where the war stands — and how President Joe Biden should respond to the Russian leader's nuclear threats and war crimes.
Ukrainians believe they are in an existential struggle for the very survival of their homeland. They are willing to pay a very high price for victory. Now is not the time for cease-fires or negotiations, which would only give the Russians a breather to rally their flailing troops.
Indeed, Putin's missile assault — and his nuclear threats — reflects the fact that his forces are in deep trouble. The missiles were revenge for last week's stunning truck-bomb attack — the work of Ukrainian intelligence forces — on a strategic bridge connecting the Russian mainland to Russian-occupied Crimea. The bridge attack humiliated the Russian leader — and showed that Crimea is vulnerable.
Moreover, Russia is running out of trained fighters and sophisticated weapons. Putin's botched "partial" call-up of more troops is angering the wider Russian public. Russia's military industry, which depends on components from the West, is crippled by sanctions.
"The Russian ability to 'punish' Ukraine is significant, as we have seen," I was told by former CIA director and retired general David Petraeus, "but it is not going to stop Ukraine from retaking their country. Ukraine sees this as their war of independence. They are determined to win it, and with enormous support from the U.S. and other Western nations, they have developed the military capability to win it."
Ukrainians like Oleksiy say any peace talks are impossible until Russian forces are driven out of most or all of their country. What kind of negotiations can be held with a Russian leader who insists that the Ukrainian state has no right to exist because it is part of Russia? Putin insists that Russia will never return the roughly 20% of Ukraine that it has annexed via fake referendums — including the Black and Azov Sea coastal areas that are key to the Ukrainian economy.
The rants of Russian talking heads on state-controlled TV reflect the prevailing Kremlin attitude that Ukrainians are less than human — "Satanists" and "Nazis" are the common insults. (If you have a strong stomach, you can listen to this garbage, with English subtitles provided, by clicking on @JuliaDavisNews on Twitter.)
One example: Pavel Gubarev, a Russian proxy leader in occupied Donetsk, warned Ukrainians of Russia's intentions: "We aren't coming to kill you, but to convince you. But if you don't want to be convinced, we'll kill you. We'll kill as many as we have to: 1 million, 5 million, or exterminate all of you."
But at a politically fraught time, when many Trumpist GOP legislators, and Donald Trump himself, are questioning U.S. aid to Ukraine, and when Putin is amplifying his nuclear bluster, it is important that Biden clarify to the U.S. public why they must continue to support Ukraine's struggle.
It was disappointing that Biden, who has consistently provided Ukraine with weapons — though often too slowly — warned recently that Putin's nuclear threats raise "the prospect of Armageddon." Such a casual remark, at a campaign fund-raiser, scares rather than educates, and conveys uncertainty to Putin.
Here is what I wish Biden would say:
"My Fellow Americans, Ukrainians are fighting for the values that we Americans fought for in 1776, and still champion: the right to independence and freedom. They are reminding us what it means to sacrifice for love of country.
"If Vladimir Putin is permitted to seize a neighboring country by force — something unheard of in Europe since Adolf Hitler — his appetite will be whetted for further conquest. If he can use the threat of nuclear weapons to achieve victory, that threat will be raised against Europe or the United States in the future. China, North Korea, and Iran are watching closely.
"So I want to make clear that any use of tactical nuclear weapons against Ukraine will bring catastrophic consequences to Russia. The Kremlin should be in no doubt that the United States and its democratic allies will respond decisively, as we have conveyed to them in detail.
"As for Putin's barbaric missile attacks on civilians, our, and our allies' response will be to urgently expedite the immediate arrival of air defense systems to Ukraine that we had previously planned to deliver months or years from now. We will also supply longer-range munitions so that Ukraine can precisely hit the Russian launchers aimed at civilian targets. It is vital to help Ukraine make further gains before winter sets in.
"And when it comes to an off-ramp for Putin, let me quote my friend Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, who said: 'Off-ramp? The way out of the conflict is for Russia to leave Ukraine.'
"This is a war of independence against an imperialist Russian autocrat that is acting like a fascist conqueror from the World War II era. We must preserve international law — as enshrined in the U.N. charter — that rules out such barbarity. We will stand with Ukraine until Putin realizes it is time to end his war of conquest, or Ukrainians force him to do so — and until Russia rejoins the civilized world."
– Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer.