Over the past 48 hours, Russia again escalated its rain of explosives on Ukrainian cities and civilians. As Ukraine’s soldiers drive back Russia’s invasion forces, Vladimir Putin is trying instead to bludgeon millions of Ukrainians into submitting to his will, crippling the power, water and heating systems they need to survive the winter. A war over whether we should govern our world through laws or at gunpoint is in a dangerous new phase — and those who would maintain peace through law need to buttress our support for the Ukrainians bearing that front-line battle.

Ukrainian rescuers extinguish fires from an October 10 Russian missile strike in Zaporizhzhia, part of Russia’s aerial blitz targeting civilian homes and infrastructure vital to Ukrainians’ survival in the coming winter. (Nicole Tung/The New York Times)
Ukrainian rescuers extinguish fires from an October 10 Russian missile strike in Zaporizhzhia, part of Russia’s aerial blitz targeting civilian homes and infrastructure vital to Ukrainians’ survival in the coming winter. (Nicole Tung/The New York Times)

Russia’s wave of attacks has destroyed 40 percent of Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure, forcing blackouts and threatening millions of civilians with a deadly winter. The European Commission president yesterday called these “acts of pure terror.” United Nations and other monitors underscore that attacks on such civilian objects are violations of international humanitarian law. The World Health Organization warns that Russia’s attacks on their homes and community services will expose more Ukrainians to frostbite, hypothermia, pneumonia and other illnesses — “a matter of life or death,” its director for Europe said.

That these atrocities against Ukrainian civilians are a deliberate, desperate choice by the Kremlin is reflected in the way its forces are committing them with any weapons they can find or adapt, including Iranian drones and S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov dissembled this week about Russia’s use of the Iranian Shahed drones, even though this has been photographed and documented publicly in detail.

President Putin’s expansionist designs, unprovoked war, and now his attempt to bludgeon Ukrainians into submission, all ignore the lessons of a predecessor. Eighty-two years ago, Adolf Hitler faced British defiance of his invasions in Europe. In the Battle of Britain, he committed his own aerial war crimes, massively bombing the civilians of London and other cities. Bloodied Britons buried their dead, shoveled aside the debris and sustained their fight. Prime Minister Winston Churchill rebuffed extreme pressures then to negotiate with Hitler. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy defies similar pressures now. We should support him. 

The Financial War

As Putin’s war lengthens and winter approaches, one critical struggle is financial. Russia, with an economy many times larger than Ukraine’s, is likely to lose 4 to 6 percent of its gross domestic product this year because of the war and resulting sanctions, according to Bloomberg data and an International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimate as of August. Those losses could be cushioned by last week’s decision by OPEC, the oil-producing cartel, to cut production and sustain higher oil prices.

Londoners battle fires from 1941 Nazi bombing that tried, and failed, to bludgeon Britons into submission. (National Archives)
Londoners battle fires from 1941 Nazi bombing that tried, and failed, to bludgeon Britons into submission. (National Archives)

By contrast, the World Bank and other analysts say, Ukraine will lose 30 to 40 percent of its gross domestic product this year, its civilian economy shattered and nearly 8 million Ukrainians seeking refuge abroad according to current U.N. data. Ukraine will need more than $3 billion per month through next year to sustain basic government and services — plus help in rebuilding critical infrastructure, President Zelenskyy said last week. One resource for Ukraine’s reconstruction is the $300 billion in Russian central bank reserves that are frozen in the banks of the Group of Seven countries.

As was the case in Britain’s stand against fascism in World War II, supporting Ukraine is a baseline investment in preserving international order and security against future dictators’ wars — and nations need to cooperatively share that burden. The unthinkable alternative is the world’s surrender — to Putin now and to the certainty of more would-be modern-day emperors in the coming years.

It is worth noting that Russia’s war on Ukraine “continues to powerfully destabilize the global economy,” notably by increasing inflation rates worldwide, an IMF report said last week. The costs for people worldwide will include an estimated $2.8 trillion in lost global economic production for 2023 alone, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A disproportionate share of the war’s costs fall on Europe, which has responded with extraordinary generosity. Traveling to Ukraine last month I rode a train across Poland, which currently shelters 1.4 million Ukrainian refugees, yet we saw not a single refugee camp of the kind common to other war zones. That is because ordinary Poles have reached out to host the fleeing Ukrainians in their own homes and communities. This is the kind of commitment to the Ukrainians’ survival and recovery that all of Europe and the world need to emulate, if only out of our shared interest in future global stability.

The Ordeal of Kherson

Poland is prominent among the European countries that have been expanding their military support for Ukraine, notably with this week’s decision by the European Union to begin training 15,000 Ukrainian troops in various of its member countries. Along with this support, the escalated Russian air attacks on Ukraine’s cities make it essential that allied countries quickly deliver on their various offers to send improved air defense systems to Ukraine.

Ukrainians are continuing to recover swaths of their country seized by Russia early this year. Following the collapse and retreat last month of Russian forces from the eastern province of Kharkiv, a new potential turning point is coalescing in southern Ukraine. There, Ukrainian forces have made slow progress against Russian forces dug into the province of Kherson — and Russia’s supply of its forces in the south have been complicated by the damage to its single rail line for that purpose, over its bridge across Kerch Strait, which was damaged by massive explosions last month.

The focal point is now Kherson city — the only provincial capital the Russians have captured since their escalation of the war in February. Like Donetsk, Mariupol, Mikolayiv and other southern cities, Kherson and its residents have suffered brutal violence for months — including, notably, the killing this month of an orchestra conductor who refused Russian officials’ instructions to hold a public concert to show peace and joy in the city under Russian rule. But the Ukrainians’ recovery of areas around the city now means Russian troops, estimated at perhaps 20,000, risk being cut off there, on the west bank of the Dnipro River. Russian officials have signaled concern that they soon may lose the city, which could happen with a sudden collapse, as occurred at Kharkiv.

Putin’s Nuclear Threat

Putin now confronts his military’s continued retreats in Ukraine and the political risks at home that accumulate with the evidence, increasingly clear to ordinary Russians, that his assault on Ukraine is based on a web of lies. Most obvious to Russians is this: What Putin calls a limited, “special military operation” is really an open-ended war that is killing their men in numbers that the government is keeping hidden. That much is demonstrated by Putin’s need this fall for a new conscription drive that has prompted an estimated 300,000 or more Russians to flee their country.

As Putin has done before, he is trying to ease his predicament with the threat to use a nuclear weapon. NATO nations must continue their careful monitoring of Russia’s nuclear forces to detect any movement toward an actual attack. Any use of a nuclear weapon would bring catastrophic consequences — a fact that the United States and its allies must continue to make clear. Russia is deeply isolated over this war, with only a few dozen countries even abstaining on recent U.N. General Assembly condemnations of its actions. Ukraine’s allies should work via all diplomatic avenues to ensure that Putin hears the message that his global isolation would deepen to the point of guaranteeing his and Russia’s defeat if he were to explode a nuclear warhead.

Eight decades ago, Winston Churchill and his battered Britain symbolized dramatically the world’s stakes in opposing a self-aggrandizing dictator seeking empire through war. It would be fatal now to miss seeing our current moment, and the role of brave Ukrainians, for what they are. The imperial fantasies of Putin and his allies are a greater global threat than even eight months ago. As winter descends, the people of Ukraine are, to their own pain, the world’s frontline defenders. We must bolster our support for them, knowing that this is how we and they will shape the future in which our children will live.

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