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Vladimir Putin’s latest display of brutality and vengeance might be a fit of fury over his signature Crimean bridge being blown up. But his indiscriminate targeting of Ukrainian civilians also raises the prospect of a horrific new turn in a vicious war.
Russian missiles damaged a glass-bottomed footbridge in Kyiv that is a popular tourist site, tore into intersections at rush hour and crashed down near a children’s playground on Monday. Power outages rolled across the country, in places cutting off water supplies and transport, in strikes that recalled the terror inflicted on civilians in the invasion’s early days but that had largely ebbed in recent months. Russian forces launched new attacks Tuesday, with rockets hitting two energy facilities in western Ukraine, ahead of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appearance at an emergency virtual meeting of G7 leaders.
The assaults snatched away the semblance of normality that city dwellers, who spent months earlier in the war in subways turned into air raid shelters, have managed to restore to their lives and raised fears of new strikes.
The message was obvious for the world to see. Putin does not intend to be humiliated. He will not admit defeat. And he is quite prepared to inflict civilian carnage and indiscriminate terror in response to his string of battlefield reversals.
But the targets on Monday also had little military value and, if anything, served to reflect Putin’s need to find new targets because of his inability to inflict defeats on Ukraine on the battlefield.
The bombing of power installations, in particular, Monday appeared to be an unsubtle hint of the misery the Russian President could inflict as winter sets in, even as his forces retreat in the face of Ukrainian troops using western arms.
This possibility that Putin could be heralding a bloody new twist in a war that has gone through multiple strategic phases since the invasion in February was weighing heavy on the minds of political and military leaders in Washington Monday. Their reaction was laced with revulsion that Putin was again unleashing callous warfare against civilians that recalled Europe’s 20th century horrors.
How should the US respond
The attacks on civilians, which killed at least 19 people and injured more than 100 others, also drove new attention to what next steps the US and its allies must take to respond, after already sending billions of dollars of arms and kits to Ukraine in an effective proxy war with Moscow.
President Joe Biden Monday spoke to Zelensky and offered advanced air systems that would help defend against Russian air attacks, but the White House did not specify exactly what might be sent.
John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, suggested Washington was looking favorably on Ukraine’s requests and was in touch with the government in Kyiv almost every day. “We do the best we can in subsequent packages to meet those needs,” he told CNN’s Kate Bolduan.
Kirby was also unable to say whether Putin was definitively shifting his strategy from a losing battlefield war to a campaign to pummel civilian morale and inflict devastating damage on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, though he suggested it was a trend developing in recent days and had already been in the works.
“It likely was something that they had been planning for quite some time. Now that’s not to say that the explosion on the Crimea bridge might have accelerated some of their planning,” Kirby said.
An onslaught on civilians would be consistent with the resume of the new Russian general in charge of the war, Sergey Surovikin, who served in Syria and Chechnya. In both places, Russia indiscriminately bombarded civilian areas and razed built-up districts and infrastructure and is accused of committing serious human rights violations.
The rain of fire against Ukrainian civilians on Monday was also chilling, given that it occurred following Putin’s latest nuclear threats and days of debate over whether he might use a tactical nuclear weapon. If he does not, it seems unlikely – given his obliviousness to civilian pain – that any such decision would be motivated by a desire to spare innocents from such a horrific weapon. Still, Kirby said that there was no indication that Russia was activating nuclear arms or that the US needed to change its own nuclear posture.
But French President Emmanuel Macron underscored western concerns that Monday’s rush-hour attacks in Ukraine could be the prelude to another pivot in the conflict.
“It is a profound change of the nature of this war,” he told reporters.
Ex-US official: Putin is telegraphing a grim winter
Retired Lt. Col Alexander Vindman, former director for European Affairs on the National Security Council, said that by attacking targets designed to hurt Ukrainian morale and energy infrastructure, Putin was sending a message about how he will prosecute the war in the coming months.
“He was telegraphing about where he is going to go as we get into the winter. He is going to try to force the Ukrainian population to compromise, to give up territory, by going after this infrastructure,” Vindman said on CNN’s “New Day.”
Bolstering the impression that Ukraine’s power grid was now in the firing line, the Ministry of Defense in Moscow on Tuesday said it launched what it described as a “massive attack” on Ukraine’s “military control and energy system.” Authorities in the western Lviv region reported three explosions at two energy facilities.
Vindman called on the US to provide air defense equipment and weapons that could go after Iranian-made drones used in Monday’s attacks to help protect civilians and power plants.
Igor Zhovkva, Zelensky’s chief diplomatic adviser, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room” that Ukraine had shot down 56 of the 84 missiles and drones that were fired by Russia, in apparent revenge for an explosion on a strategic bridge leading to annexed Crimea that is critical for Moscow’s war effort and is a symbol of Putin’s rule.
“So imagine if we had modern equipment, we probably could raise the number of those drones and missiles downed and not kill innocent civilians or wound and injure Ukrainians,” Zhovkva said.
Any prolonged campaign by Putin against civilians would be aimed at breaking Ukrainian morale and possibly unleashing a new flood of refugees into Western Europe that might open divisions among NATO allies that are supporting Ukraine.
The early signs, however, suggest that Putin has once again misread how the world would respond to his brutality. Macron, for instance, said the attacks would prompt France to increase military assistance to Kyiv. Traumatic footage of Ukrainian civilians live streaming Russian missiles roaring over their heads and explosions may serve to harden the opinion of Western publics facing their own pressure this winter because of Putin’s energy war. And if anything, the turning of fire on civilians hints at Russian – rather than Ukrainian – weakness, since it suggests Putin is unable to respond in the field to humiliating defeats for his forces.
The lesson of this horrible war is that everything Putin has done to fracture a nation he doesn’t believe has the right to exist has only strengthened and unified it.
Olena Gnes, a mother of three who is documenting the war on YouTube, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper live from her basement in Ukraine on Monday that she was angry at the return of fear and violence to the lives of Ukrainians from a new round of Russian “terror.”
But she vowed while cradling her infant that Putin’s tactics wouldn’t work.
“This is just another terror to provoke maybe panic, to scare you guys in other countries or to show to his own people that he is still a bloody tyrant, he is still powerful and look what fireworks we can arrange,” she said.
“We do not feel desperate … we are more sure even than before that Ukraine will win and we need it as fast as possible because … only after we win in this war and only after Russia is defeated, we will have our peace back here.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.