The Hill

Russian President Vladimir Putin is doubling down on his war against Ukraine. In recent days and weeks, the Kremlin has telegraphed that Kharkiv City and Chasiv Yar in the Donbas are next on Putin’s list to be “liberated,” or in other words reduced to piles of rubble.

Moscow continues to bomb both cities as it prepares to launch a new major spring or summer counteroffensive. On Monday, Moscow upped its messaging by destroying a civilian TV tower in Kharkiv. Earlier in April, eight Ukrainian civilians in the city were killed and 10 wounded by Russian attacks.

Olga Skabeyeva, Putin’s favorite TV propagandist, pitched these latest attacks in Kharkiv as part of Russia’s efforts to create a “sanitary zone” in eastern Ukraine. In any other language, Putin’s “Iron Doll,” as he likes to think of her, is admitting Moscow is preparing to intensify the Kremlin’s genocidal war against Ukrainians.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov simultaneously was echoing the same ominous wording. As the Institute for the Study of War observed, it was not a coincidence. Lavrov bluntly asserted that Kharkiv “plays an important role” in Moscow’s plans to impose a “sanitary zone” in Ukraine.

But Kharkiv City and Chasiv Yar are only intended as stepping stones. Putin will not stop his genocidal military campaign until all of Ukraine is turned into a so-called “sanitary zone,” and even then, he will continue looking westward and south toward Moldova and Georgia to complete the trifecta.

President Biden and his national security team are facing a moment of truth in Ukraine. Simply funding the war in Ukraine without changing the dynamics will likely result in Putin winning over time.

The storm in Ukraine is gathering and the president must determine whether he has the will and conviction to face it and see Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his generals through to victory. Yes, Biden has extended a lifeline to Ukraine, but he has done so while creating conditions for a forever war that Kyiv cannot ultimately win.

Funding a defensive war, as we have repeatedly warned, was never going to be enough to stop Putin in Ukraine or elsewhere in eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Ukrainian victory, on the other hand, can and will. But that outcome will require a radical shift in strategic thinking in the White House and among the president’s national security team.

Biden can get there by drawing a red line in Kharkiv. For now, the city still stands. But soon, its landscape if left unchecked, will be as desolate as Bakhmut and Avdiivka are now after Russia’s indiscriminate artillery barrages.

It is time for Washington and Brussels to become bold. Funding is in hand and now Biden must turn that funding into a winning hand for Ukraine.

A NATO-enforced no-fly zone, to protect Ukraine’s major population centers from Russian missile and drone attacks, is one course of action that should be considered. The West cannot continue to look away as Putin commits wholesale genocide in Ukraine by intentionally targeting civilians, weaponizing food and causing widescale ecological disasters such as destroying in June last year the Nova Kakhovka Dam on the river Dnipro in the south of the country near Kherson.

France could lead the way in this initiative if Biden will not. Emmanuel Macron, to his great credit, has recognized the importance to Europe’s overall security of defeating Putin in Ukraine.

Ukraine, by staving off Russia for now from threatening the Baltic States and Poland, deserves the same level of stalwart protection Israel received from the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Clear demarcation lines could be set. U.S. and NATO air assets would only be used to shoot down incoming Russian drones, cruise missiles and ICBMs targeting civilian Ukrainian population centers and infrastructure.

Biden could also send a clear message to Putin by publicly announcing his intent to support a Ukrainian victory, and the removal of all Russian troops from the Donbas and Crimea. As retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. Army Europe has often stated, Crimea is the “decisive terrain” of this war.

By doing so, Biden would at last stop being so predictable. Presently, Putin knows that the White House — and particularly Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security advisor — is gripped by escalation fears. Biden must change that equation.

Threatening Crimea would do just that. It will also force Putin’s military planners to reconsider whether or not Moscow’s likely forthcoming counteroffensive against Kharkiv is worth further exposing the peninsula.

Putin played that game against the West, using the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel as a distraction under which to launch his assault on Avdiivka days later. Now, Biden can and must turn the tables on Putin in Crimea.

Biden will not deter Putin by simply saying “don’t.” His “don’t” already did not stop Iran from directly attacking Israel. Nor has it stopped North Korea’s brinksmanship with Japan and South Korea, nor China’s harassment of Filipino shipping in the South China Sea and machinations against Taiwan.

Anything would be more persuasive than Biden’s “don’t.” Most persuasive of all would be for Ukraine to destroy immediately the Kerch Bridge connecting the Crimean Peninsula to Russia’s mainland. That would give Putin his own gathering storm to worry about. The introduction of ATACMS by the U.S., an additional 1,600 Storm Shadow missiles from the UK, and F-16 fighter jets already makes that course of action realistic.

The addition of these precision deep-strike weapons and munitions also allows Ukraine to win the interdiction war. And to strike back at Russian drone, cruise missile and ICBM launch sites – and key command and control and logistic centers such as the port city of Rostov-on-Don located on the Sea of Azov.

Biden and his national security team, alongside NATO, now own the outcome of this war, win or lose. Congress gave Biden all of the funding he sought and more, and on a bipartisan basis. He is now out of excuses. It is his responsibility to face the gathering storm in Kharkiv and Chasiv Yar and turn it into the beginning of the end of Putin’s adventurism in Europe and beyond.


Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy. Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer.