KYIV, Ukraine — This week, I was jolted awake by an air raid siren for the first time since my service in Iraq just over a decade ago. It was roughly 3 a.m. on Monday night, and I was sleeping soundly here in Ukraine’s capital. I’m visiting with a group organized by the Renew Democracy Initiative, a pro-democracy organization founded by the Russian dissident (and chess grandmaster) Garry Kasparov, and our small band was of course warned this was likely to happen. Missile and drone attacks are common in Kyiv. But this night was different. Ukrainian officials called it “exceptional.”
The inbound missiles included Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, among the most vaunted weapons in the Russian arsenal. Last August, the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the weapons were unstoppable, “impossible” to detect or intercept.
Well, they were detected and intercepted. I watched (and heard) it happen. The skies lit up over Kyiv as the Ukrainians launched air defenses, including what appeared to be American-made Patriot missiles. At the end of the exchange, Ukrainian and American officials claimed that Ukrainian air defenses intercepted all six of the hypersonic missiles launched by Russia, and in a meeting on Thursday, the Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznikov specifically attributed the Kinzhal kills to Patriot missiles. A Patriot battery was damaged, but reportedly still operational. And yet again Russian military capabilities had proven to be exaggerated. Not toothless, certainly — it was an anxious night — but hardly invincible.
I share this story for multiple reasons. First, it highlights a fundamental reality of this conflict: Russia has been waging an unrestricted, gloves-off military campaign against Ukraine since the opening moments of the war, while the United States has continued to constrain Ukraine’s response. For example, while Russia attacks civilian targets across the length and breadth of Ukraine with long-range missiles and drones, we’ve denied Ukraine the use of the long-range (i.e., effective to about 190 miles) Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, which could be used to strike military targets deep in Crimea or across the Russian border.
While the world spent weeks discussing a single, mysterious (and ineffectual) apparent drone attack on the Kremlin, large-scale terror attacks on Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure are routine. Indeed, the attack on Kyiv on Monday was notable mainly for the nature of the weapons used, not for the relatively routine fact that Russia aimed missiles at the capital. I’ve seen destroyed and damaged apartment buildings with my own eyes. We’ve grown accustomed to overwhelming Russian aggression. Yet we fret about far smaller Ukrainian responses.
I understand the reasons for the concern. Russia is a nuclear power, and the specter of nuclear escalation has haunted the conflict from the start. Thus, the debate about American military aid has been dominated by a key question: How much aid is enough without being too much? What kind of weapons and tactics can defeat Russia in Ukraine without threatening Moscow so much that the conflict escalates out of control?
Yet excessive restraint also has its costs, potentially prolonging the war and leading Russia to believe that it can outlast Ukraine — or, more realistically, the commitment of Ukraine’s Western allies. To put it another way, excessive restraint can mean that the costs of the war, as great as they are, remain more or less sustainable for Russia, even as it strains the limits of its conventional capabilities to make those costs unsustainable for Ukraine.
Virtually every meaningful inch of Ukrainian territory is subject to Russian strikes, while Russia itself effectively serves as a giant safe haven for its military and military infrastructure. And if military history teaches us anything, it teaches us that combatants who enjoy true safe havens possess considerable advantages over their more vulnerable opponents.
At the same time, is it really true that there is a meaningfully greater risk of nuclear war if Ukraine can target the Russian military throughout all of Russian-occupied Ukraine (including Crimea) and in the periphery of Russia close to Ukraine? The recent decision by Britain to supply Storm Shadow cruise missiles, which have a range comparable to ATACMS, suggests it is skeptical that is the case.
In a meeting I attended with the Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, he argued that the West has long been able to deter Russian nuclear use, including during what he called “more difficult” past crises. He noted that fear of escalation has been used to delay virtually every new delivery of weapons. In his words, “From Day 1 the concept of escalation was the concept of excuse.”
But Monday’s attack wasn’t notable simply for once again highlighting the moral and tactical disparities of the conflict. Ukraine’s ability to defeat the Kinzhal should be a startling moment for America’s peer or near-peer military competitors. As Fabian Hoffmann, a doctoral research fellow at the Oslo Nuclear Project, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, “If I was a Russian nuclear strategist today, I would be very worried. You just received proof of concept that Western air and missile defenses can intercept 100% of your tactical nuclear delivery vehicles (SRBM, BM, aircraft) in a time-coordinated, multi-vector attack.”
In plain English, this means that we may have a greater ability to defeat many of Russia’s most fearsome delivery vehicles than we once thought. I’ll withhold judgment on our ability to defeat China’s comparable weapons systems, but this moment can’t be reassuring to Chinese military planners, who like the Russians have developed their own hypersonic missile capabilities. In the most significant combat test so far between Western air defenses and hypersonic missiles, the air defenses prevailed. Yet this was not their first success. Last week Pentagon officials confirmed that Patriot missiles shot down a single Kinzhal missile in a smaller strike on May 4.
And that brings me to the next key point: The most important advances in Ukrainian air defenses have come from Americans. For all my critiques about our unwillingness (so far) to supply ATACMS missiles to Ukraine, or my concerns that we’ve (so far) refused to supply advanced fighter aircraft or greater numbers of Abrams tanks, the bottom line is that American weapons and American support have proved remarkably effective at blunting the Russian advance, and Ukrainians know it.
Americans are weary of military entanglements. The Afghanistan withdrawal was a shocking, humiliating debacle. Most Americans believe invading Iraq was the wrong decision. We’re exhausted after a pandemic that would be an ordeal under the best of circumstances and proved particularly polarizing in our divisive times. In parts of the American right in particular, there is a sense of American failure and American decline. Yet in the most strategically important military conflict in generations, the reality is completely different. Here, the combination of Ukrainian valor and American technical and intelligence capabilities is proving decisive.
It is difficult to communicate the level of Ukrainians’ affection for Americans and gratitude for American support that one experiences here. They know how important our help is. They know that we’ve given them — to a far greater extent than any other nation — the tools and resources to repel a vicious invasion. Moreover, our strategy has largely worked. Ukraine defeated Russia’s initial attempt to take Kyiv. It has pushed Russia back from Kharkiv. It has retaken Kherson. It has apparently stopped the most recent Russian offensive. Yes, it has taken immense losses, but no rational person could look at the military situation in Ukraine and think that Russia has achieved its objectives. It is Russia, not Ukraine, that faces the greatest military peril at the moment.
I had a mixture of feelings on Monday night as we watched Ukraine’s new air defenses arc up into the night sky, but one of them was pride. We did this. We saved lives. We are helping a courageous people confront and defeat a truly evil regime. This does not happen by accident. There are very capable American diplomats, soldiers and intelligence officials who are helping make this happen, and we should be grateful for their service.
This is primarily a Ukrainian story, of course. We know from bitter experience that we can supply “allies” with billions of dollars of American weapons, only to watch them collapse in the face of a determined attack. But Ukrainian valor and resolve are breathtaking. Most Ukrainians I’ve talked to since arriving don’t say “after the war”; they say “after the victory.” But this is also an American story, and at the risk of sounding a bit corny, when I watched the air defenses we helped build intercept Russian hypersonic missiles above Kyiv, I felt proud to be an American.
Source photograph by John Moore/Getty Images.