With President Biden’s decision on Wednesday to sell Ukraine advanced General Atomic drones and HIMARS accurate multiple rocket launching systems, the war in Ukraine has moved further into a missile-driven conflict whose boundaries will increasingly be defined more by missile threats than any nuclear fulminations.
As I argue in the attached The National Interest piece “Is Missile-Driven Deterrence the Solution to War in Ukraine,” increased reliance on ever longer-range strike systems is changing the way the war is being waged and how it might end. Russia is using its long-range artillery and its medium-range missiles and drones to terrorize and demoralize Ukrainian civilians and to deter NATO and Ukraine from widening the war. Ukraine wants to acquire longer-range strike systems to strike at Russia’s theater logistical support units so as to push Russia out of Ukraine.
All of this frightens Putin but also has made US officials wary of selling too many weapons systems of too great a range too soon. These officials worry that if they don’t get the mix of advanced weapons, the timing of their introduction, and their numbers right, they risk escalation to a general, and possibly nuclear war with Russia. Ukrainians, meanwhile, who have pledged not to fire into Russia, fear that if they don’t defeat Russia in the Eastern portion of Ukraine, the war will be lost.
June 2, 2022
Author: Henry Sokolski
By Henry Sokolski
Ever since President Joe Biden first swore off fighting World War III (and creating no-fly zones over Ukraine), Washington nuclear intellectuals have enjoyed a momentary splash of relevance. Nuclear fear and loathing—i.e., nuclear mutual assured destruction and deterrence—are back. Vladimir Putin rattled his nuclear sabers. Initially, we blinked. Now, however, with Ukraine better armed and about to receive advanced missiles, the blinking is less intense.
Without quite thinking it through, Washington and Ukraine are transitioning from a war initially bounded primarily by nuclear threats to one being driven by conventional strike systems. Thus, strategic military breakouts by either side have been stymied less by dint of threatened nuclear attacks (which although frightening, are highly unlikely), than by the exchange of thousands of artillery rounds, drones, and rockets.
Both sides have used these weapons to strike armor, ships, cannon, and troops. Putin has gone further to use them to knockout Ukrainian maternity wards, children’s hospitals, nurseries, grocery stores, schools, theaters, cultural moments, and churches. He has fortified these “value” terrorizing raids with long-range strikes against Ukrainian electrical generation stations, shopping centers, factories, fuel, and food storage sites, and critical industrial and agriculture infrastructure. Russia’s aims? First, amp up international digital displays of darkness, hunger, and despair to deter Ukraine from shooting outside its borders and NATO and the United States from shooting in. Second, brutalize and grind Ukraine to force it and its friends to cave.
One might view this mash as a modern, “discriminate” version of Allied city-busting of the 1940s—massive bombing runs that flattened innumerable Axis cities. Each of these destructive aerial riots was inflicted in a matter of hours (at most, several days) murdering tens of thousands of innocents per assault (c.f., Operation Meetinghouse, which killed 100,000 Tokyo residents in one night).
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