Russian officials say three Ukrainian drones targeted Moscow over the weekend, and one of those drones struck a skyscraper in the city. Ukraine has now taken responsibility for the attack.
“Gradually, the war is returning to the territory of Russia—to its symbolic centers and military bases, and this is an inevitable, natural, and absolutely fair process,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
The strike is part of Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive against Russia.
In response to the drone strike, Russia’s former president and prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said, “Just imagine that the offensive … in tandem with NATO succeeded and ended up with part of our land being taken away. Then we would have to use nuclear weapons by virtue of the stipulations of the Russian Presidential Decree,” according to a Telegram post reported by CNN.
How likely is it that Russia would use nuclear weapons against Ukraine in the coming months?
Victoria Coates, Heritage Foundation vice president of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, says that “it’s been possible from the beginning,” but added that she has “never considered it a particularly likely turn of events.”
Coates joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to explain how likely it is Ukraine will continue to target civilian infrastructure in Russia, what the results of such targeting might be, and what America’s involvement in the war should look like moving forward.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: It is my distinct privilege today to be joined by The Heritage Foundation’s Victoria Coates. Victoria is the vice president of the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy here at Heritage. Victoria, thanks for being back with us.
Victoria Coates: Thank you very much for inviting me.
Allen: Well, we are diving into news regarding Ukraine, Russia, and the latest. So over the weekend what we saw was that there were drone attacks in Russia and we’re slowly learning more and finding out more about what these attacks were. We’ve seen that there were reports of three drones going into Russia and there’s one specific drone that hit a skyscraper in Moscow. Has Ukraine claimed responsibility for these drones?
Coates: Yes, they did today. And that’s a big change from what we’ve previously seen, which is that if they did launch these things, they just sort of let them take off and it was sort of shrouded in mystery. But [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy] and his top advisers have said that they consider it a perfectly legitimate response to what has been a pretty grievous Russian provocation and attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine. So one can understand their logic there.
The problem we have, though, is President [Joe] Biden has made attacks on Russian targets using American material sort of a red line for him, something that he had very clearly laid out President Zelenskyy was not to do.
And if they have done that—and we don’t know what the makeup of the drones are or what else they may choose to do, but certainly we have no way of controlling the American arms that have gone into Ukraine.
And I think, rather shamefully, the Senate voted against establishing an inspector general for Ukraine just last week, which would’ve been an important tool for us to provide that oversight that the Ukrainians who are in a shooting war can’t really do.
Allen: All right. Well, I want to dive a little deeper into that in just a moment.
I do want to get your reaction to something that Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said following the drone attack. He said, “The counteroffensive is not going as planned so Ukraine is opting for targeting civilian infrastructure.”
What is your response to that? Are we going to see more of this, do we anticipate, from Ukraine where they’re not only trying to hit targets within Russia, but they’re specifically targeting civilian infrastructure?
Coates: It’s certainly possible and the fact that Zelenskyy is comfortable taking responsibility for it, that kind of development suggests we might be moving into an escalatory period around this counteroffensive.
And one interesting thing about the counteroffensive is they are actually taking back ground around Bakhmut, that town that was the big strategic sort of prize that the Wagner Group took a couple of months ago, and the chief of Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, really celebrated this as his great victory. Well, that’s being clawed back and it’s slow, it’s extremely violent.
There’s recent footage from the battlefield, which if you blur your eyes, you half think you’re looking at World War I. So [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s kind of trying to take us back a century here. But the Ukrainians are making progress, so that’s encouraging.
Allen: How significant is that progress? I remember the last time we had you on, it was maybe a couple of months ago, and the counteroffensive, everyone had been talking about it, but it still hadn’t started. And so now it’s obviously launched, it’s in full swing. Is it what you expected? Is it as aggressive as you think it needs to be, as it should be in order for Ukraine to put Russia in a position where they really are hurting and where they might come to the negotiating table?
Coates: Well, certainly, I think the Ukrainians are doing everything they can. I mean, they’ve displayed great bravery and they’ve enjoyed very significant U.S. support. That said, the Russians are throwing a ton of men and a ton of equipment into this fight. This is their general strategy to just wear down their opponents.
I do think the fact that Ukraine has seemed to sort of tip the balance of gravity a little bit and start pushing back is very important. Whether they’ll be able to make enough progress quickly enough to put the kind of pressure on Russia that you described, we don’t know that yet. And as with any plan, it generally doesn’t survive first contact with the enemy. So you have to expect the unexpected.
Allen: How is Russia responding after this? Is Putin saying anything?
Coates: Well, through his lead henchman, Dmitry Medvedev—who’s the one who used to cycle through the presidency when Putin still paid lip service to democratic institutions, so is very much a Putin pawn, if you will—did make the statement over the weekend about potentially using nuclear weapons if the Ukrainian counteroffensive is successful.
Now, in some ways this is nothing new. The Russians have been brandishing nuclear weapons now for well over a year and trying to use that as a tool of coercion to damp down support for Ukraine.
And I think in this case they’re very clearly signaling that the United States or NATO should get a handle on these pesky Ukrainians and stop them from being as aggressive in their counteroffensive as they might want to be.
Now, it’s always been my opinion that we are probably not going to influence Putin’s decision-making on nuclear weapons. I think he’s decided whether or not he’s going to use them.
All we can do is really signal unambiguously that it is unacceptable for a nuclear weapon of any size to be detonated in Europe. Because if we go down that road, we wind up where we are in Syria, for example, where we have almost normalized the use of chemical weapons after President [Barack] Obama made them a red line and then didn’t follow through back in 2013.
Allen: Obviously, a lot can happen in such a short period of time. So given what we know now, and maybe looking at just the next couple of months, what is the likelihood that we would see a nuclear weapon used?
Coates: It’s been possible from the beginning. OK? I’ve never considered it a particularly likely turn of events. I think that Putin has to know that this would be a real Rubicon for him, that he would not be able to come back from that. It is not clear to me how the Russian people would respond. It’s not something you can really hide from them.
And if the response from the United States is what it should be, in my mind, the truly crushing economic sanctions that this administration has been unwilling to put into place, which, in my opinion, we should have done well over a year ago, put very serious consequences on Putin and by extension his Chinese bankers.
So this would be a very difficult, painful thing to do, but it is our kind of overall leverage against him if we don’t want to get into a ground war in Europe against Russia, which I think we could all agree is not a desirable outcome.
Allen: Why haven’t we gone after pulling the full leverage and just putting on all of the sanctions on Russia that we could have?
Coates: Sadly, it’s domestic energy prices in the United States.
The Biden administration actually wants the Russian products to keep moving. They tacitly said as much when [Indian] Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi was here a couple of weeks ago, that instead of pressuring India to stop importing Russian oil and then processing it and then selling it to Europe as an Indian product, which can be done under current EU regulations, instead of pressuring them to stop, the administration basically said, “We are willing to countenance. This is OK as long as the energy prices around the world don’t spike.”
So that would be part of the pain, which would be real that we would incur, but we might get to the end of the war.
Allen: And get there a lot faster, I’d say.
Coates: Much faster.
Allen: So, let’s circle back. Let’s dive into a little bit of U.S. policy toward Ukraine right now. What we are doing, what we should be doing, and what we shouldn’t be doing. Where do things stand right now? We recently heard we sent cluster bombs over to Ukraine and they’ve already started using those, correct?
Coates: I believe so. That all moved pretty quickly because we have a lot of cluster bombs due to the fact that both the Obama and Biden administrations have avoided using them because they considered them a grave threat to civilians.
And the problem is that Putin is already using them. So this might have been something we could have considered a year ago if we did want to actually arm the Ukrainians effectively and win the war, if that were the goal. Doing it now just seems kind of piecemeal, the way everything else has.
And they’re talking about the F-16s now, which is something Ukraine has repeatedly asked for. The Heritage position is that given the time it takes to train folks up on that plane and a couple of other considerations, that’s not a great answer for Ukraine right now. But the president’s pattern seems to be that they’ll make a request, he’ll wring his hands for somewhere between six weeks and three months and then agree to send it to try to score some political points.
But really, it’s a significant thing for our listeners that I think everybody has to be on the watch for is how they’re going to approach the next supplemental funding request, because the Pentagon found two pots of money in the couch cushions over the summer totaling about $10 billion, which allowed them to get through the summer without asking for more money, which means engaging the duly elected representatives of the American people, explaining what they want and why, and leading out a strategy, all of which they’ve avoided.
And now it looks shamefully like they are going to try to attach a Ukrainian supplemental to the disaster relief, must-pass funding appropriations vehicle for [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. So this is hurricane relief going into hurricane season.
So in essence, you are holding U.S. citizens hostage to funding for Ukraine because it would have to be a pretty singular member of Congress, particularly one who is in a hurricane-vulnerable state, to vote against this going into what is supposed to be an active hurricane season. And it’s shameful.
If they want more money for Ukraine, they should let it stand on its own merits. And if I were the Ukrainians, I would be lobbying against this. I would not want my security to be linked to domestic U.S. spending.
Allen: Victoria, you live in the weeds of this issue like few people I know and it’s so, so helpful to have your analysis. If you were calling the shots on this and you are laying out, “OK, this is how we can move forward, how the U.S. can effectively move forward in seeing this war brought to an end, but also while being responsible to U.S. interests,” what would your recommendation be?
Coates: Well, I think I would’ve handled it differently from the get-go. I think I would’ve gone back when it was clear it wasn’t going to be a three-day war.
I would’ve convened a NATO summit right then and there and made clear that this was going to be a much longer-term endeavor than we expected. It is a European war and that we expect the large economies of Europe not only to honor their 2014 pledge for NATO funding, but also to shoulder the majority of the burden for this war. That the United States would provide military assistance as appropriate, and we would certainly do that robustly if there was a real chance of defeating Putin, but that the civil society costs and a significant amount of the military costs should be borne by Europe. Because we are also a Pacific power, we have to prepare for China at the same time.
The Europeans have not been particularly forward-leaning or robust in their support for the United States and in the event of a conflict with China. So we have to be mindful about that.
So I think figuring out what it would actually take to deal a clear defeat to Russia early on in the war was maybe the cardinal sin. And now the administration seems to be kind of accepting of a stalemate and that, in a way, is the worst of all worlds.
Allen: What is our responsibility to Ukraine at this point, given the decisions that have been made that now we have to live with? How do we move forward?
Coates: Well, we’re under no legal obligation to do any of this. The problem with the so-called Bucharest Memorandum of understanding from the 1990s—which was supposed to guarantee Ukraine security on the joint assurances of the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Russian Federation—it wasn’t binding. And so Russia felt perfectly comfortable violating it any number of times, both with the seizure of Crimea, now with the full invasion. And so that also is not binding on the United States.
I think we have interests in Ukraine. It’s a large country with significant resources and has potential to be a very important friend and ally to the United States if it can go through its own process of modernization and sort of maturation. So there are reasons to be interested in Ukraine, but how far the American taxpayer is prepared to go in this war in which we are not a party, on a continent that we don’t live on, that is a question that hasn’t really been put fully to folks. And through their representatives they haven’t been able to weigh in. And that’s where I think you see some real concerns.
Allen: Victoria, thank you for your time today, as always.
Coates: Thank you.
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The post Ukraine Drones Bring War to Moscow. Russia Threatens Use of Nukes. appeared first on The Daily Signal.
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