Editor’s Note: Keir Giles (@KeirGiles) works with the Russia and Eurasia Programme of Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in the UK. He is the author of “Russia’s War on Everybody: And What it Means for You.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Almost 10 months into Russia’s full-scale invasion, the vital battle for the future of Ukraine is not on the front line.
Instead, it is in protecting the civilian population from Russia’s drone and missile campaign against critical civilian infrastructure – a campaign designed to end Ukrainian resistance by making the country uninhabitable.
Air and missile defense are Kyiv’s greatest needs at this stage in the conflict. And reported US plans to supply Ukraine with the advanced Patriot missile defense system are an essential element for keeping Kyiv in the fight.
Of course, Russia and its backers around the world will present this as a massive and dangerous escalation. That’s nonsense, but it’s highly effective nonsense.
The escalation game
Since well before February’s invasion, portentous but vague threats from Russia of unspecified but alarming responses have been sufficient to serve as a massive brake on Western support for Ukraine.
And for almost a year afterward, Western powers were careful not to give the Ukrainian armed forces weapons that could threaten Russia itself.
In doing so, the West has played along with the Kremlin’s pretense that it is not at war, only waging a “special military operation.” In effect, it has protected Russia from the consequences of its own aggression.
In fact, repetition of the narrative that any one of a wide range of events that Russia would dislike will ensure “guaranteed escalation to the Third World War” has been highly effective in shaping US and Western behavior.
The US in particular has felt its way forward through incremental increases in the capability of weapons supplied to Ukraine, wary at each stage of Russia’s supposed “red lines” – but finding in each case that the red lines evaporate, and all Russia’s threats are empty bluster.
But Russia will keep doing this because it works. And US President Joe Biden and other Western leaders consistently reassure Russia that it works by explicitly referring to the fear of escalation – precisely the fear Russia wants to stoke.
Russia’s most effective tool of deterrence remains nuclear threats. Loose talk from Russia about using nuclear weapons has died down a little recently, but a decade or more of driving home the message of inevitable nuclear response if Russia is cornered or humiliated has already had its effect.
Russia’s efforts at deterrence continue to bring success in the form of arguments for a ceasefire as a preferable outcome to a Ukrainian victory – based on fear of the consequences of Russia suffering a defeat.
The limits of the Patriot system
The Patriot system – advanced long-range air defense that’s highly effective at intercepting missiles – offers an immensely expensive means of defending a very limited number of high value targets. But it is neither a total solution to Ukraine’s air defense problem, nor a swift one, with one earliest possible in-service date in Ukraine estimated at February 2023.
It does not meet Ukraine’s immediate needs for dispersed defenses in large numbers to counter the wide range of air and missile threats from Russia. But the anticipated US decision to supply the system may instead be a preemptive response to a possible new emerging threat – the arrival of Iranian ballistic missiles to step up Russia’s campaign of destruction still further.
Meanwhile, Russia will continue to look for sources of replacement weapons as it scrapes the barrel for repurposed or adapted missiles to launch at Ukraine. And Iran may not be the only country willing to supply Russia in the future.
But all of these weapons are effective at soaking up Ukraine’s limited air defenses in the same way Russia has thrown untrained soldiers on the front line to soak up bullets and shells. In a race of attrition, the Patriot system is just the most capable (and most disproportionately expensive) countermeasure that Russia could potentially exhaust with a much lower-tech and cheaper campaign.
Changing the terms of conflict
Supplying a high-end capability like the Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine is a solid sign of commitment by the US – and, as such, another step in the US steadily overcoming Russia’s successful efforts at deterring it from aiding Ukraine.
But increasing air defense support and propping up Ukraine’s vital civilian infrastructure are addressing the symptoms of the problem, not its cause. Responding only in this way is playing Russia’s game by Russia’s rules, and telling Moscow that the West finds its way of warfare acceptable.
Sanctions have not been enough to shake Russia’s determination to restore its empire at the cost of peaceful neighboring states. Instead of continuing to set up more targets for Russia to knock down, the US and Ukraine’s other Western backers should change the terms of the conflict. The international community must do more than simply tolerate Russia’s naked aggression and the savagery with which it is pursuing its war of colonial reconquest. More direct intervention is long overdue.
It is past time for the West to tell Russia that if it continues down this path, its fantasy of a hostile West seeking the overthrow of Putin will become a reality. Russia could hardly claim this, too, was an escalation, when it has long told the world and itself that it is already at war with the West.
It’s hard to imagine any other country being permitted by the world to wage the kind of campaign Russia has in Ukraine (and in Syria before it); still less with an overt agenda of exterminating the Ukrainian people.
And yet, Russia’s UN Security Council veto and the fear it has instilled through nuclear propaganda have given it a free pass to behave as it wishes, without fear of interference from a global community looking on in either ambivalence or helpless paralysis.
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That sets a disastrous example for other aggressive powers around the world. It says possession of nuclear weapons allows you to wage genocidal wars of destruction against your neighbors, because other nations won’t intervene.
If that’s not the message the US and the West want other aggressor states around the world to receive, then supply of Patriot should be followed by far more direct and assertive means of dissuading Moscow.