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Opinion | A Brutal New Phase of Putin’s Terrible War in Ukraine

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An illustration of Vladimir Putin shattered like glass.

Credit…Illustration by Rebecca Chew/The New York Times; photographs by Alexey Druzhinin and Vladimir18, via Getty Images

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By The Editorial Board

The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.

The war in Ukraine has entered a new, more deadly and fateful phase, and the one man who can stop it, Vladimir Putin, has shown no signs that he will do so.

After 11 months during which Ukraine has won repeated and decisive victories against Russian forces, clawed back some of its lands and cities and withstood lethal assaults on its infrastructure, the war is at a stalemate.

Still, the fighting rages on, including a ferocious battle for the city of Bakhmut in the eastern Donetsk region. Cruel, seemingly random Russian missile strikes at civilian targets have become a regular horror: On Jan. 14, a Russian missile struck an apartment building in Dnipro, in central Ukraine. Among the at least 40 dead were small children, a pregnant woman and a 15-year-old dancer.

Both sides are now said to be bracing for a fierce new round of offensives in the late winter or spring. Russia has mobilized 300,000 new men to throw into the fray, and some arms factories are working around the clock. Ukraine’s Western arms suppliers, at the same time, are bolstering Kyiv’s arsenal with armor and air defense systems that until recently they were reluctant to deploy against Russia for fear of escalating this conflict into an all-in East-West war.

Over the past two months, the United States has pledged billions in new arms and equipment, including a roughly $2.5 billion package announced this week that, for the first time, includes Stryker armored combat vehicles. Other American weapons on their way to Ukraine include the Patriot, the most advanced American ground-based air defense system; Bradley fighting vehicles; armored personnel carriers; and artillery systems. NATO allies have thrown more weapons into the mix, including the first heavy tank pledged to Ukraine, the Challenger 2 heavy tank from Britain. Germany, historically reluctant to have its tanks used against Russia, is under heavy pressure to allow its allies to export its first-rate Leopard tank to Ukraine.

Germany did not make a decision at a meeting with Ukraine’s allies on Friday, in which countries reiterated their support for sending more advanced arms to Ukraine. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who led the gathering, noted that this was “not a moment to slow down” but to “dig deeper.”

That means the broad, muddy fields of Ukraine will soon again witness full-scale tank-and-trench warfare, this time pitting Western arms against a desperate Russia. This was never supposed to happen again in Europe after the last world war.

Ukraine and its backers hope that the Western arms will be decisive, giving Ukraine a better chance to blunt a Russian offensive and drive the Russians back. How far back is another question. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine talks of chasing Russia out of Ukraine altogether, including the territory seized by Russia in 2014 in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The United States and its allies may prefer a less ambitious outcome, although U.S. officials are reportedly considering it as a possibility. But so long as Mr. Putin shows no readiness to talk, the question is moot. The job at hand is to persuade Russia that a negotiated peace is the only option.

This is why the coming fight is critical. But as Mr. Putin digs himself ever deeper into pursuing his delusions, it is also critical that the Russian people be aware of what is being done in their name, and how it is destroying their own future.

How much of this do Russians know or question? It is difficult to ascertain what Russians are privately saying or thinking, given how dangerous any open criticism of the “limited military operation” has become. Independent media have been stifled, thousands of protesters have been arrested, and many foreign correspondents, including those of The Times, were compelled to leave when it became illegal to dispute the official line about the war.

Still, at the very least, most Russians should be asking when and how this war will end. That is why this editorial is addressed in part to the Russian people: It is in their name that their president is waging this terrible and useless war; their sons, fathers and husbands are being killed, maimed or brutalized into committing atrocities; their lives are being mortgaged for generations to come in a state distrusted and disliked in many parts of the world.

The Kremlin’s propaganda machinery has been working full time churning out false narratives about a heroic Russian struggle against forces of fascism and debauchery, in which the Western arms are but more proof that Ukraine is a proxy war by the West to strip Russia of its destiny and greatness. Mr. Putin has concocted an elaborate mythology in which Ukraine is an indelible part of a “Russkiy mir,” a greater Russian world.

Isolated from anyone who would dare to speak truth to his power, Mr. Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine last year, convinced that the Ukrainians would promptly shed their “fascist” government. The start of the war stunned Russians, but Mr. Putin seemed convinced that a West wasted by decadence and decline would squawk but take no action. He and his commanders were apparently unprepared for the extraordinary resistance they met in Ukraine, or for the speed with which the United States and its allies, horrified by the crude violation of the postwar order, came together in Ukraine’s defense.

Mr. Putin’s response has been to throw ever more lives, resources and cruelty at Ukraine. And with the deplorable support of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, the president has elevated what he insists on calling his “limited military offensive” into an existential struggle between a spiritually ordained Great Russia and a corrupt and debauched West.

But Russians are aware that Ukraine was not widely perceived as an enemy, much less a mortal enemy, until Mr. Putin seized Crimea and stirred up a secessionist conflict in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Until then, Russians and Ukrainians traveled freely across their long border, and many of them had family, acquaintances or friends on the other side.

And after all the poverty, repression and isolation under Soviet rule, Russians need to remember that until Mr. Putin began trying to change Ukraine’s borders by force in 2014, they were finally enjoying what those in other industrialized countries had long considered normal — the opportunity to earn decent salaries, buy consumer goods and enjoy vastly expanded freedoms to travel abroad and speak their mind.

The West they visited was not the caricature of depravity presented by Mr. Putin or Patriarch Kirill. And their Russia was hardly a pure and spiritual model, with the alcoholism, corruption, drug abuse, homophobia and other sins so familiar to all Russians.

In the end, the question is whether any of Mr. Putin’s lectures on history really provide a justification for the death and destruction he has ordained. Russians know the horrors of all-out war; they must know that nothing Mr. Putin has concocted remotely validates the leveling of towns and cities, the murder, rape and pillaging, or the deliberate strikes against power and water supplies across Ukraine. Like the last great European war, this one is mostly one man’s madness.

If Ukraine was not an enemy before, Mr. Putin has ensured it is one now. Battling an invader is among the most potent methods of forging a national identity, and for Ukraine, Russia as its enemy and the West as its future have become indelible elements. And if the West was indeed divided and indecisive on how to deal with Russia or Ukraine before, Moscow’s invasion has unified the United States and much of Europe in relegating Russia to a threat and an outcast, and raising a heroic Ukraine to a friend and ally.

Claiming to champion Russian greatness, Mr. Putin has turned Russia into a pariah state in many parts of the world. He claims Russia has everything it needs to withstand the cost of the war and sanctions. But according to a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank, Russia faces decades of economic stagnation and regression even if the war ends soon. Industrial production, even military, is likely to continue falling because of its reliance on high-tech goods from the West that it can no longer get. Many Western companies have left, trade with the West has dwindled, and financing the war is draining the budget. Numerous foreign airlines have ceased service to Russia. Add to that the millions of Russia’s best and brightest who have fled, and the future is bleak.

The true scope of Russia’s casualties is also being kept from its people. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in November that Moscow’s casualties were “well over 100,000 Russian soldiers killed and wounded.” About 300,000 men have been pressed into cannon-fodder duty in the army and many more may follow.

It is possible that Mr. Putin might eventually seek a negotiated settlement, though that becomes ever more remote as the Ukrainians suffer ever greater destruction and loss, and as their determination not to cede an inch of their country deepens. For now, Mr. Putin seems to still believe he can bring Ukraine to its knees and dictate its fate, cost be damned.

In his public appearances, Mr. Putin still cultivates the image of a self-confident strongman. Where there are failures, it is the fault of underlings who do not obey his will. He played out that scene on Jan. 11, in his first televised meeting with government ministers in the new year, when he tore into Denis Manturov, deputy prime minister, over aircraft production figures Mr. Putin insisted were wrong and Mr. Manturov defended. Mr. Putin finally exploded, “What are you doing, really, playing the fool?” “Yest’,” Mr. Manturov finally said, the Russian equivalent of “Yes, sir.”

Russians have seen this act before in the Kremlin. They might do well to ponder whether, in this version, Mr. Putin is the omniscient czar and Mr. Manturov the bumbling functionary — the intended lesson — or whether they are being played for fools by Mr. Putin’s vanity, delusions and spitefulness.

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