KYIV, Ukraine — The day before I interviewed Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, Russian missiles slammed into a business district in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, far from the front line or any military target.
Among the 23 dead was Liza Dmytrieva, a blond 4-year-old with Down syndrome whose mother proudly posted a video of her pushing a pink stroller just before the strike. That video went viral, as have photos of the overturned, blood-smeared stroller.
The attack on Vinnytsia was one of a stream of Russian missile attacks on malls, schools, hospitals, theaters and other public places in cities, suburbs and villages since I arrived in Ukraine earlier this month. I have seen smashed shopping centers in Kyiv, nine-story apartment buildings in Chernihiv with front walls sheared off and bombed university buildings in Mykolaiv. This is Vladimir Putin’s signature method of warfare.
As Russia’s ground forces stall, the Kremlin has launched a new rain of death from the air, from as far away as bases in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea, from Belarus, and from war planes above the Caspian Sea. The precision-guided missile that killed Liza was fired from a Russian submarine hundreds of miles away in the Black Sea. Precision-guided, mind you.
So what does Ukraine need to stop Putin’s murderous attacks from the air on civilians (and on Ukrainian forces)?
“Ukraine’s allies must understand Russia is a terrorist state,” Reznikov told me at our meeting in a spare Defense Ministry conference room.
“Putin is starting real terrorist tactics, trying to convince people in Ukraine — and Ukraine’s Western allies — that he has no stoplight,” said the minister.
How to combat this Kremlin method of warfare? The answer comes swiftly: “We need to close the skies.”
Of course, Ukraine has been begging NATO to help it close the skies since the Russians invaded. Reznikov hopes this time will be different.
“We are aware there will not be a no-fly zone as there was over Iraq” — when U.S. planes protected Iraqi Kurdistan from Saddam Hussein in the 1990s — Reznikov said. “But we can get new weapons (from the West) to defend our cities and skies.” Those weapons are also needed, he said, to protect Ukraine’s nuclear power stations from possible Russian missiles.
There are some initial signs that NATO allies are finally recognizing the need to help Ukraine combat Russia’s war from the air.
The United States recently announced it would provide Ukraine two of the advanced surface-to-air missile defense systems known as NASAMS. That could enable Ukraine to protect civilian and military sites.
NASAMS are a huge step up from Ukraine’s antiquated Soviet-era air defense systems.
But two systems is nowhere near what Ukraine would need to protect against Putin’s war on civilians — and to bolster its military defenses. Reznikov offers no numbers, saying only: “It will be on the basis of discussion with our partners. They know all our gaps.”
Know, yes. Deliver? We’ll see.
The minister added that he has asked U.S. officials “a couple of times” for U.S. Patriot air and missile systems, which would be a true game changer. “However, we are not sure any one country is ready to give them because maybe it lessens the capability of their armed forces,” he said.
In other words, neither the United States nor allies who use Patriots are willing right now to part with them. But he added: “Who knows? Probably Patriots will be the next step in the future. It depends on the developing of the situation.”
The tragedy, of course, is that the United States, Britain and some other NATO allies are slowly offering Ukraine more sophisticated, long-range precision weapons systems that could have prevented Russian advances if they had been delivered earlier, and in larger numbers. A delay now only helps Russia and costs Ukrainian lives.
A prime example is the recent U.S. delivery of the long-range, multiple rocket launch systems known as HIMARS. They have made a major difference by disrupting Russian efforts to seize all of Ukraine’s Donbas region and move even farther west toward Kyiv.
The arrival of the HIMARS, with their range of 70 kilometers (about 45 miles), “has let us ruin the enemy warehouses, arms depots, and headquarters command sites,” Reznikov said. “It is really starting to change the situation on the front lines” — in the Donbas. “The Russians are very afraid of this weaponry.”
The results yielded by the new weapons have been impressive. In the spring, Ukraine was losing 100 fighters a day on the Donbas front lines, with as many as 400 injured. “But in June and July, the numbers are dramatically less, in June 50% less and in July probably more,” the minister told me.
“Russians can no longer store their weaponry near the front lines.”
But again, the question is speed of delivery and numbers. Ukraine has requested 100 of the systems. I’m told by U.S. and Ukrainian sources that 40 HIMARS is the absolute minimum number required to be effective on all three Ukrainian front lines — in the Donbas to the east; in the north near the Russian border; and in the south, along the Black Sea.
For Ukraine to push the Russians back to their pre-2022 invasion lines, Kyiv needs to start a counteroffensive in the south this fall, to force the Russians to retreat into occupied Crimea from the land they have occupied in the south.
“To mount a counteroffensive,’ Reznikov told me, “Ukraine needs more artillery, aircraft to bomb their fortifications, then tanks and armored fighting vehicles to liberate our territory. Plus antimissile systems like NASAMS or probably Patriots or something like this level of effectiveness.”
In other words, Ukraine needs weapons to prevent the Kremlin from offsetting its poor-fighting, disorganized, low-morale Russian military with the vast Russian superiority in numbers of missiles, rockets, and shells.
This may seem like a huge Ukrainian ask. But consider the skill with which Ukrainian forces have deployed the HIMARS, along with their success in driving Russian ships away from the Black Sea coast once they were finally given U.S. and British Harpoon anti-ship missiles.
It seems pretty clear that Ukrainian forces could push the Russians back if NATO allies provided the weapons. “We have the understanding of how to fight with the Russians. We are creative. We are fighting for our land, our freedom,” Reznikov said firmly.
“If our partners continue to deliver new kinds of weapons, we will have enough power to change the battlefield scenario,” he said. “If we will use partner resources precisely, accurately … we have a real chance to win this war against the endless resources of Russia.
“But we need numbers, not slow and in small pieces. We have to write together this recipe for victory.”
The real question is whether the allies want Ukraine to win.
Reznikov is skeptical about the Europeans. “Some countries,” he said, in a not-so-subtle dig at France and Germany, “want to continue trading with the Russians, even if the price is pressuring Ukraine to cede its territory to Moscow.
“They have to understand that Russia’s main goal since February is to rebuild the Berlin Wall — to restore the Russian empire,” the minister said, adding, “You can give them part of Berlin if you want, or the French seacoast where there are a lot of Russians with villas.”
The minister is also doubtful that the Russians will uphold any negotiated deal, even a possible agreement with Turkey and Ukraine on a safe passage for grain exports from the port of Odesa. “I still don’t believe the Russians,” he said.
However, Reznikov is effusive about his relationship with U.S. Defense Minister Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley. “I am sure the U.S. wants Ukraine to win, I saw it in the eyes of Austin and Milley, not only in their words. I felt it. They are on our side.
“I think the next decision by the United States could be that Russia is a terrorist state.”
Reznikov didn’t ask Austin why U.S. weapons delivery was so slow. “I don’t like to put him in an awkward position,” he explained. “Some things we understand silently and smile. What for me is important is his personal involvement for Ukraine. He knows all the bureaucratic and political obstacles. He can say ‘help me to help you.’”
As I prepared to leave, Reznikov told me, “Things are going to change by the end of this year. I am an optimist. But I am an optimist who is informed.”
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101. Her email address is [email protected]