The Risks of Delay Loom Large
Putin’s war in Ukraine has entered its Grozny Phase, where the village is destroyed in order to save it. We now see the Russians escalating use of large-scale and indiscriminate artillery barrages against civilian targets—and there should be no doubt that this is intentional, not accidental—and “thermobaric,” “vacuum,” or fuel-air explosives. If the charge about the employment of thermobaric weapons is true, it “would potentially be a war crime,” as White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged.
There are situations where the use of such weapons has a legitimate military purpose. They can be highly effective against deeply entrenched fortifications such as underground command posts or cave complexes, or against large armored formations in the open. They work by first dispensing a cloud of aerosol gas or tiny metallic fragments, then setting them alight with a second explosion. This produces tremendous overpressures and sucks the oxygen out of a large area, in effect vaporizing the area. Used against apartment blocks, it both vaporizes and terrorizes. The Russian military has been the most profligate in using both artillery- and aircraft-delivered fuel-air explosives, notably in Chechnya and Syria, where it faced resilient insurgencies. In both cases, it snatched a brutal victory from the jaws of defeat, not only rescuing the Assad regime but catapulting Vladimir Putin to the throne in Moscow in 2000.
At the moment, there is very little the Ukrainians can do to prevent or respond to this onslaught. The immediate task for Russian ground forces is simply to protect their artillery parks outside Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities. As the weight of the Russian air force becomes felt—these need not be precision-guided weapons—not even the dogfighting “Ghost of Kyiv” can rescue the situation.
Nor are even the most aggressive economic sanctions really responsive to this immediate moment. Nor are short-range air-defense weapons such as the Stinger or anti-armor missiles like the Javelin nor the provision of excess Sukhoi fighters from neighboring ex-Warsaw Pact militaries. Both sanctions and defensive weaponry are necessary and welcome but not sufficient.