Four weeks ago I visited the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol and spoke with residents about a possible Russian invasion. None of them imagined they would soon be besieged by a Russian military that has cut off their water, electricity and food supplies, and that deliberately attacks civilian targets -- including a maternity hospital and civilian convoys trying to leave.
My translator is now hunkered down in a basement with her mom, three cats and three other adults. I’ve not been able to make contact with her in nearly two weeks.
Mariupol has become the symbol of an ugly truth that the White House and NATO allies have been too slow to grasp: Despite Russian losses, Vladimir Putin does not want a diplomatic offramp from his Ukraine war.
Furious at Russian losses on the ground in this war, he wants to wipe out Ukrainian cities and towns from the air. Yet, so far, despite sending much military aid, the West has failed to provide Ukraine with the air defenses it needs to stop the slaughter.
That must change now.
A consensus is building among experts that Putin believes he cannot afford any deal short of abject Ukrainian surrender, lest he face humiliation and possible ouster. Several Russian attempts to assassinate Ukraine’s heroic President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have been foiled.
CIA Director William J. Burns testified before the US Congress on Tuesday that the Russian leader is “angry and frustrated right now” after miscalculating that Ukraine would be quickly defeated. “He’s likely to double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties,” Burns said.
So any hopes that Russian-Ukrainian talks will lead somewhere are misplaced.
The war is likely to drag on, creating a massive humanitarian crisis as Russian missiles and bombs devastate cities, including Kyiv. But what if better Western assistance in defending the skies could help Kyiv fend off those bombs and missiles?
What if -- and I know this challenges the imagination -- Ukraine could actually win?
The very concept shakes Western preconceptions. US and allied leaders were certain Kyiv would fall swiftly and they planned to help Ukrainians resist the Russian occupier.
But Ukrainian successes in holding off the invader have impelled NATO countries to, belatedly, pour in anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles across the Polish border. This is all to the good. But these weapons will not stop Russian rockets, missiles and higher-flying planes from devastating cities from the air.
Yet the Biden team and its allies still appear conflicted about giving Ukraine some of the tools it is desperately requesting to stop Russia’s murder from the skies.
Consider the bizarre story of the used, Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets that Poland offered to Ukraine. The initial idea was that Ukrainian pilots would fly them from Poland into Ukraine, but the plan became public, making both the Pentagon and Poland nervous. Then Poland suddenly announced it would hand the planes over to NATO in Germany to pass on to the Ukrainians. The Pentagon immediately nixed that plan and said Ukraine did not need the planes.
President Zelenskyy begs to differ. And because the Ukrainian military has done so much better than NATO nations expected, some way should be found to get the Polish planes into their hands.
As for the vociferous argument over no-fly zones, it is understandable that NATO does not want to embroil its planes in direct combat with Russian aircraft. There is an often-repeated fear of “escalating” the conflict, lest Putin carry out his threat of using nuclear weapons.
Why can’t NATO consider a lesser variant of a no-fly zone over the western part of Ukraine, which Russia has not yet besieged? That would permit refugee convoys to travel safely toward Poland and protect the city of Lviv, which is crammed with refugees from elsewhere in the country.
Moreover, Putin is escalating daily, apparently considering the use of chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine -- according to US intelligence sources -- while falsely blaming any such episodes on Western countries. This is Putin’s modus operandi: Russian planes bombed hospitals and schools in Syria, while Russians or their Syrian allies also used chemical weapons, blaming their use on their opponents.
While the Biden team must be prudent, it cannot afford to let Putin use the nuclear threat to prevent helping Ukraine to stop the destruction of its cities.
“We should respond to Putin’s nuclear threat with contempt,” former US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst told me. “Russia is as vulnerable as we are.” He adds, “If we let Putin get away with it, what is so different from his marching into Estonia (a NATO-member Baltic state)?”
President Joe Biden insists that NATO will defend every member state. But if Putin’s nuclear threats enable him to destroy Ukraine, he isn’t likely to believe Biden.
Better to help Ukraine defend its skies now.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. --Ed. (Tribune Content Agency)
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