What America Got Wrong About Russia’s Threat

KYIV, Ukraine–Ever since President Putin’s forces began massing on Ukraine’s border, the West has been obsessed with how to mount a defense of the country without provoking Russia into escalating the conflict.

That vacillation included the US and European allies declining Kyiv’s requests for Patriot missile systems, tanks, and other medium- and long-range missiles to fight off the invading army. The West feared that attacks on Russian territory would create an explosive reaction from the Kremlin that could even result in the use of nuclear weapons.

And yet, the successful use of High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS)—belatedly given to the Ukrainians—and a series of explosions deep inside Russia over the past month have put Putin on the back foot militarily and destabilized public opinion back home. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inner circle says they have been proven right all along, and the Western nations have finally accepted their vision of fighting back against the Russian army.

“During the first seven months of the war, political elites in the United States and European Union took a position that was wrong, thinking that by passing certain weapons to us they would help to increase escalatory situations deep in the territory of the Russian Federation, “

Mykailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, told The Daily Beast. “In the last couple of months, we have seen more understanding. On the contrary, the more weapons they pass on time, the more incidents on Russian territory will result in de-escalation of the war.”

Soldiers of the 59th brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces fire grad missiles on Russian positions in Russia-occupied Donbas region on December 30, 2022 in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Pierre Crom/Getty Images

Podolyak is happy to admit that Ukraine has intensified assaults against territory annexed by Russia. This is something Putin views as a powerful escalation, especially when the attacks are on land he grabbed back in 2014 and considers to be fully part of Russia.

On the first day of 2023, the Russian Defense Ministry’s television channel, Zvezda, reported shooting down 15 Ukrainian drones over more than a dozen regions including the Crimea peninsula. Crimean residents could hear explosions in Jankoi, a town in the north of the peninsula, on New Year’s Eve. Podolyak says that Russia should not be surprised with Ukraine targeting its military bases and forces in Crimea, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv or Zaporozhia regions, all parts of Ukraine: “We are striking, we are not hiding it—this is our right, our territory and there will be no other consequence for Ukraine besides positive,” he said.

The increasing military might of the Ukrainian forces—now bolstered by drones as well as the HIMARS, with further tanks and Patriot missiles set to follow—has infuriated the Kremlin. In his New Year speech, Putin accused the West of “cynically using Ukraine and its people to weaken and split Russia.” Putin sounded grim as he spoke of Russia’s existential fight for “our motherland, truth and justice,” standing in front of soldiers.

While Ukraine is happy to claim credit for attacks on territory stolen by Putin, it is far more cagey about any missile or drone attacks taking place inside Russia. In fact, Zelensky’s administration has a blanket ban on admitting that Ukraine was behind any of the attacks which have targeted strategic sites including an airfield base just 150 miles from Moscow. They say these must have been carried out by disgruntled Russian saboteurs or an anti-Kremlin partisan movement of guerrilla fighters.

Residents of Russia’s Belgorod region, just across the border from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, posted videos of explosions in the sky on New Year’s Eve, wondering, “What was that?”

There was no answer from Kyiv.

“The sabotage mood is increasing in Russia, the number of deserting soldiers is growing. Russia is turning into a backward country that has no specialists to fix the equipment, while the number of explosions on its territory is just growing,” Podolyak said. “This is a partisan movement. We don’t comment on our involvement in attacks on Russia, we are a civilized state, but the partisan activity is an increasing trend.”

Ukraine’s popular commander-in-chief, Valery Zaluzhny, has predicted a new Russian attack as early as in January, which could even include another assault on Kyiv or the west of the country.

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A Ukrainian soldier talks with his fellows in his underground base after returning from the frontlines in Zaporizhia region.

Celestino Arce/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“We are totally ready to fight back,” Podolyak tells The Daily Beast.

Ukraine’s emotional condition is different from the mass panic we saw before the battle for Kyiv last year, when hundreds of thousands fled the country. Many say they are tired of being scared, of running—this is an existential war for Ukraine, and the population seems increasingly united and patriotic.

“We are full of ultimate hate; we need to release it, that would be the right thing to do,” Podolyak told The Daily Beast. “Our resources, intelligence and defense capacity is much more powerful than in February, while Russia is running out of resources and is demoralized. They will try to change the situation and have counter-offensive operations, but the initiative is in Ukraine’s hands.”

No peace deals with the Kremlin are being considered in Kyiv, people believe that a ceasefire would just allow Russia to re-group and attack again. Podolyak says he has promised Ukrainian soldiers that there would be no compromises with Russian leadership. “Dozens of soldiers look at me with hope, asking: ‘Are we going to fight this war to the end and complete everything we are doing?’

“I assure them we are not going to stop in the middle, since that would mean the final collapse of Ukraine’s statehood,” Podolyak said. “If the Russian political elite do not get punished for this scale of war crimes and destruction, they will feel empowered to commit even more radical crimes. We don’t need other armies coming here, we’ll do everything ourselves. Whoever I speak with in the leadership or military, we all have total consensus about how we are going to finish the war: liberate our territories in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea regions.”

The question is what price Ukraine is going to pay and for how long. About 90 percent of all of Ukraine’s losses are victims of Russian artillery and multiple launch rocket systems, which Russia is now firing from inside its own borders and out of reach of Ukraine’s currently available weapons.

“Longer-range missiles changed the course of this war. With HIMARS we quickly drained the blood of Russian forces of the first wave, we liberated the Kherson and Kharkiv regions; so they had to move the provision of their rear troops 80 kilometers away from our border to where our artillery cannot reach them. They recovered their supplies, which slowed down our movement forward,” Podolyak says. “We keep telling our partners, this is not about wanting to attack Russian territory, we need missiles that can reach as far as 100 to 250 kilometers. Such missiles would rapidly speed up the finalization of this war.”

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A view of the damaged structures, including a clothing and food market and a chemical plant, after the Ukrainian shells struck the Russian town of Belgorod, 10 km from the border with Ukraine. Many deaths and wounded people were reported.

Vladimir Aleksandrov/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

So far, nobody in the West has agreed to supply long-range missile systems to Ukraine. But Podolyak is convinced that it is just a matter of time and negotiations. “Six months ago, the word “HIMARS” was banned, three months ago the word “Patriot” was under a ban and now Patriots, IRIS-T and Leopard tanks will be delivered and missiles with a range of more than 100 kilometers are under discussion.”

The Kremlin has already threatened to expand the war if these requests are met. Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in September: “If Washington decides to supply longer-range missiles to Kyiv, then it will be crossing a red line, and will become a direct party to the conflict.”

Podolyak is convinced that the time has come to cross this red line.

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