By bombing the power grid meant to sustain Ukrainians through dark, cold months, Vladimir Putin is inflicting some of the most barbaric wartime conditions experienced by civilians in Europe for decades.
The use of winter as a weapon of war is designed to break the will of a nation that has humbled Russian forces – and to test the generosity of Western publics footing the bill for Ukraine’s defense. And it is forcing President Joe Biden and other leaders to make another round of adjustments to the lifeline of armaments and aid sustaining Ukraine’s resistance.
The intensity of Moscow’s deliberate targeting of civilians has also revived questions over if and when the world should press for a diplomatic end to the war as well as a rising domestic political debate about how long multi-billion dollar aid must last. This pressure, notably inside the incoming Republican House majority, often spikes alongside Putin’s calculated spurts of nuclear brinkmanship and whenever fears rise that the war will spill into NATO territory.
These questions will be at the center of talks Thursday between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, the two most critical leaders of the West, who will be essential to any eventual ceasefire and who have at times differed on whether diplomacy can work with a leader as ruthless as Putin.
US mulls huge new training mission
If anything, Biden’s determination to help Ukraine win the war on the battlefield is only growing even as Macron, who has been more open to the possibility of diplomatic efforts, keeps open a channel with the Russian leader.
As it has throughout the war, the administration is constantly recalibrating its aid based on new conditions. CNN’s Oren Liebermann, Katie Bo Lillis, Natasha Bertrand and Kylie Atwood first reported Wednesday that Biden is considering a dramatic expansion in the training the US military provides to Ukrainian forces, including instructing up to 2,500 soldiers a month in Germany. The drills would cover more sophisticated battlefield tactics including on how to coordinate military maneuvers with artillery support.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN Wednesday that NATO is seeking to invest in Soviet-era weapons and ammunition for Ukraine’s forces. And he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that Washington was also focused on providing air defense systems. CNN reported Tuesday the US was considering sending Patriot air defense systems to Ukraine – in what would be yet another threshold crossed by the White House. Germany has pledged more anti-aircraft tanks. Several nations are sending in generators after Russian missile and drone attacks took out electricity facilities. Vast stocks of fuel will also be needed.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Wednesday that he detected new urgency from Western donors but that they needed to supply everything his country needed as quickly as it is needed. “These decisions have been taken after some kind of tragedy took place on the frontline, which left no other choice but for this decision to be taken.”
In recent days, expressing resolve ahead of Macron’s visit, US officials have been using graphic language to describe the depravity of Putin’s tactics, which hark back to World War II bombardments of civilians and are creating the worst human suffering in a European conflict since the 1990s in Bosnia.
“Heat, water, electricity, for children, for the elderly, for the sick — these are President Putin’s new targets. He’s hitting them hard,” Blinken said at a press conference at the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Bucharest. “This brutalization of Ukraine’s people is barbaric.”
John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, said Putin’s record meant there was no surprise about the new twist in his war. “This is a guy who’s used food as a weapon. He’s used fear as a weapon. Now … he’s using the coming cold weather here to basically try to bring the Ukrainian people to their knees,” Kirby said on Monday.
“When you take a look at what he’s hitting, it’s almost all civilian infrastructure. … It’s energy, it’s water, it’s the kind of resources that people need as they get ready to brace for what will no doubt be a cold winter.”
A test of Western resolve
The suffering of the Ukrainian people in the months to come and the ever larger sums needed to support them – Biden just asked Congress for another $37 billion – are likely to increase political debate in the US and allied nations about whether it’s time to look for a way out of the war. At least that is what Putin is clearly banking on – and its why Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska, who addressed British lawmakers Tuesday, keep up a constant public relations offensive.
Still, reflecting a more difficult political climate for Ukraine in Washington, the possible next Republican Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy warned again after meeting Biden on Tuesday that there would be no “blank check” for Ukraine.
The California Republican is under fierce pressure from pro-Donald Trump lawmakers, who will have significant leverage in his small House majority, to divert funds intended for Ukraine to increase security on the US southern border. At midterm election campaign events, the former president also complained about US generosity to a country that he dragged into his first impeachment. And one of his top followers, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene has called on the US to force Ukraine to negotiate a peace with Putin.
But Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, warned on Wednesday that Putin was betting on just such a weakening of Western resolve. “If we don’t sustain, that would not be in the interest of America or the world,” he said.
Speculation about how the war might end is not just being sparked by the sense that it will be harder next year for Biden to sustain the current level of US funding. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley caused a stir when he appeared to argue earlier this month that Russia and Ukraine would have to recognize victory was impossible as the front locked down for winter. “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it,” Milley said.
A week after those comments, which reverberated from the US across the Atlantic, Milley suggested that there was a possibility of a political solution – involving a Russian withdrawal – because Ukraine was in a position of strength. Still, a full withdrawal appears still to be the kind of humiliation that Putin may not be able to bear politically, so the incentive for him to grind on – no matter how many Russians and Ukrainians die – is still alive. Washington has consistently said that there can be no negotiations over the heads of Ukrainians, and given their battlefield success, including the recent expulsion of Russian forces from the southern city of Kherson, Kyiv’s willingness to talk, as Western-provided military material flows across the border, may be limited.
Kirby suggested on Monday that the way the war would end would be with a Ukrainian victory. He pledged Washington would “give Ukraine the tools and capabilities they need to succeed on the battlefield so this war can end … in a way in which Ukraine can be whole and sovereign and free.”
While the new House may be shaky on Ukraine next year, the Biden administration still appears to have strong support on the issue among Senate Republicans. Risch said that while he’d do some things differently, “They are committed deeply, they’re working closely with our allies and they’ve got contingency plans for things that might go awry.”
Comments by Biden and Macron will be parsed in Russia
This new phase of the Ukrainian war means that remarks by Biden and Macron at the White House will be watched intensely around the world. There is a major incentive for both to create a strong impression of unity.
The French president has become Washington’s most important European point of contact. He’s the key leader in the European Union, especially after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s retirement and the political paroxysms and exit from the EU that have made Britain a less prominent global player.
But France and the US have not always been on the same page. While Paris is closely allied with Washington, it has long pursued an independent foreign policy that can sometimes irk US officials. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and even during the war, Macron has kept in touch with Putin. He has warned that the Russian leader should not be humiliated since he’d be less likely to talk peace. Some former high-ranking Western officials, like ex-NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen have claimed that Macron’s efforts at diplomacy have only weakened Western unity on the conflict. But speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in September, the French president vowed to continue speaking to Putin and warned that the longer the conflict drags on, the more it would threaten European and world peace. But he also appeared to stiffen his tone toward Russia, accusing it of seeking to return the world to an age of imperialism.
“Negotiations will only be possible if, sovereignly, Ukraine wants it and Russia agrees to it in good faith. We all know as well that negotiations will only be successful if Ukraine’s sovereignty is respected, its territory liberated, and its security protected,” Macron said.
Given that even the French president’s conditions for talks are still out of sight, there is little prospect for peace negotiations soon. That means the grinding winter of hellish suffering for Ukrainian citizens will go on. And the need for US and allied aid will only get more acute, even as a political debate stirs about how much more the American people can afford.