Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 2 January 2024


Russia’s deadly new salvos challenge Congress to respond

Rescuers work Saturday outside an office building struck in a Russian drone attack in downtown Kharkiv, Ukraine. (Yakiv Liashenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The Soviet Union designed the S-300, a mobile, surface-to-air defense weapons system, during the Cold War to hit incoming U.S. bombers or ballistic missiles. An S-300 can fire a projectile with a 293-pound high-explosive warhead, capable of stopping targets moving at more than 2,600 miles per hour. On Friday, Russia unleashed 14 of these deadly devices, not defensively against airplanes or missiles, but offensively at cities in Ukraine. They were part of a wave of missiles and drones that marked the largest one-day aerial attack on Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion 22 months ago.

The barrage ripped into 45 multistory buildings, including schools, churches, hospitals, maternity wards, shopping centers and warehouses, as well as Ukrainian military installations and a defense factory. It killed 40 people in all: 17 in Kyiv, nine in Zaporizhzhia, six in Dnipro, four in Odessa, three in Kharkiv and one in Lviv. The onslaught wounded 160.

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The grim toll comes as a reminder that President Vladimir Putin of Russia enters the new year with the same old objective: to crush Ukraine’s sovereignty along with the country’s hopes to become a democracy affiliated closely with the European Union and, eventually, NATO. Through the terms he understands best — violence — Mr. Putin is expressing his confidence that he has weathered Ukrainian military resistance and Western economic sanctions, and his belief that Western attention and resolve are bound to waver. Russia’s onslaught included cruise missiles that it has been hoarding in apparent preparation for just such a renewed air offensive. While Ukraine was able to shoot down 114 of the 158 drones and missiles fired on Friday, all the S-300 and hypersonic missiles got through.

Ukrainians are increasingly worried about what comes next. Military and economic assistance from the E.U. and the United States has stalled. In Brussels, the problem is obstruction by Hungary’s Moscow-friendly president, Viktor Orban. In Washington, the problem is Congress, where Republicans, demanding border-security measures, are holding up President Biden’s request for a $110 billion supplemental appropriation, including $61.4 billion for Ukraine. On Wednesday, the State Department announced the approval of $250 million worth of weaponry for Ukraine, the 54th such military aid package of the war and, under current legal authorization, the last.

Opinions on the war in Ukraine
Russia’s deadly new salvos challenge Congress to respond

The best answer to Mr. Putin’s latest destructive salvo is for Congress and the White House to buckle down and strike a compromise that will allow aid to Ukraine and Israel, and a package for the southern border. Absent congressional action, pressure will grow for the United States and Europe to seize $300 billion in frozen Russian assets and turn them over to Ukraine. This move, which carries its own risks to the financial system, might eventually be necessary to fund the reconstruction of Ukraine, but it would be far preferable at this point for Congress to approve the supplemental appropriation for war materiel and economic support. The total is a small fraction of U.S. economic output but a sizable investment in Ukraine’s survival — which is to say, an investment in deterring wider cross-border aggression by Russia and others.

Though backed by Western supplies, Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive fell far short of the hoped-for large-scale expulsion of Russian troops. There’s no denying that this disappointment had an impact on Ukraine’s morale. Still, it would be wrong to conclude that Ukraine lacks either the will or the capability to fight effectively. On Dec. 26, Kyiv’s forces destroyed a large Russian landing ship, the Novocherkassk, in port at Feodosia in Russian-occupied Crimea, causing dozens of casualties. This was followed by the Russian missile attack on Ukraine’s cities. Ukraine retaliated with an attack on Belgorod, near the Ukraine border, killing 20, a rare disruption to the general quiet in Russia’s cities. Amid the fighting, Ukraine has managed to protect a vital Black Sea corridor for its grain exports.

What Ukraine needs now are longer-range attack missiles and F-16 air power, continued supply of air defenses, as well as a steady stream of artillery shells and ammunition. The West has to choke off the supply chains and cash that are propping up Russia’s ruinous war. Mr. Putin launched that aggression on his own initiative, in violation of international law. He could end it at any moment by leaving Ukraine’s territory. That’s the kind of peace the world could welcome but, alas, the kind Mr. Putin is least likely to offer. A long struggle looms, which the Russian president would never consider ending on any terms unless he knows that Ukraine has the steady military support of its friends in the West.

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