WASHINGTON – President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is approaching a potentially more dangerous new phase after a month of fighting left Russian forces pinned down by an outnumbered enemy. He is left with tough choices – how and where to replenish his depleted ground forces, whether to attack the flow of Western weapons to Ukrainian defenders, and at what cost he might escalate or expand the war.
Although he failed to secure a quick victory, Putin is not backing down to mounting international pressure, including sanctions that have battered his economy. The Western world is broadly aligned against Putin, but there is no sign that he is losing the support of the majority of the Russian public who rely primarily on state-controlled television for their news.
Ukrainian defenders, outgunned but benefiting from years of US and NATO training and a growing influx of foreign weapons and moral support, are showing new signs of confidence as the force of invasion struggles to regroup.
Russian shortcomings in Ukraine could be the biggest shock of the war so far. After two decades of modernization and professionalization, Putin’s forces have proven ill-prepared, ill-coordinated and surprisingly susceptible to arrest. The extent of Russian troop losses is not known in detail, although NATO estimates that between 7,000 and 15,000 died in the first four weeks – potentially as many as Russia has lost in a decade. of war in Afghanistan.
Robert Gates, the former CIA director and defense secretary, said Putin “must be incredibly disappointed” with his military’s performance.
“Here we are in Ukraine and see conscripts not knowing why they are there, not being very well trained, and just huge command and control issues, and incredibly lousy tactics,” Gates said during from a forum sponsored by The OSS Society, a group honoring the World War II intelligence agency known as the Office of Strategic Services.
Battlefield trends are hard to reliably discern from the outside, but some Western officials say they see potentially significant changes. Air Vice Marshal Mick Smeath, London’s defense attaché to Washington, says British intelligence believes Ukrainian forces have likely retook two towns west of the capital Kyiv.
“It is likely that successful counterattacks from Ukraine will disrupt the ability of Russian forces to reorganize and resume their own offensive towards kyiv,” Smeath said in a brief statement Wednesday.
Ukraine’s navy said on Thursday it sank a large Russian landing ship near the port city of Berdyansk.
Faced with fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russian forces resorted to bombing urban areas but made little progress in capturing the main objective: kyiv. The Pentagon said on Wednesday that some Russian troops were entrenching themselves in defensive positions outside kyiv rather than attempting to advance on the capital, and that in some cases the Russians had lost ground in recent days.
In an assessment released Thursday, the Atlantic Council said a major Russian breakthrough was highly unlikely.
Shortly before Putin launched his war on February 24, some U.S. military officials believed he could capture kyiv in a short time – perhaps just a few days – and could smash the Ukrainian army of here a few weeks. Putin, too, might have expected a quick victory, given that he did not throw the bulk of his pre-organized forces, estimated at over 150,000, into the fight in the early days. Its aviation does not assert itself either. It made only limited use of electronic warfare and cyberattacks.
Putin is employing siege tactics against key Ukrainian cities, bombarding from afar with his largely stagnant ground troops.
Stephen Biddle, professor of international affairs at Columbia University, said Putin’s change was likely based on the hope that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would give up rather than let the killing and destruction continue.
“This plan is very unlikely to work. Massacring innocent civilians and destroying their homes and communities only strengthens Ukrainian resistance and resolve,” Biddle said in an email exchange.
Ukrainian units have begun counterattacking in some areas, according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby. But the Ukrainians face an uphill battle even as the United States and its allies accelerate and expand a flow of critical weapons and supplies, including anti-aircraft missiles and armed drones. Biden has pledged to research longer-range air defense systems for Ukraine as well as anti-ship missiles. Last week he approved a new $800 million arms package for Ukraine.
Philip Breedlove, a retired Air Force general who served as NATO’s top commander in Europe from 2013 to 2016 and is now a Europe specialist at the Middle East Institute , said Ukraine may not win the war, but the outcome will be determined by what Zelenskyy is willing to accept in a negotiated settlement.
“I think it’s highly unlikely that Russia will be defeated in detail on the battlefield,” Breedlove said, because Russia has a large reserve of forces it could call upon. But Ukraine might see winning as forcing Russia to pay such a high price that it is ready to make a deal and walk out.
“I think there’s a chance of that happening,” Breedlove said.
With the outcome of the war uncertain, so is Putin’s broader goal of overthrowing the security order that has existed in Europe since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Putin demands that NATO refuse membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet states like Georgia, and that the alliance return its military presence to the positions it occupied before its expansion in Eastern Europe .
NATO leaders have rejected Putin’s demands and, with unusual speed, are increasing the presence of allied forces in Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, which border Ukraine, and in Bulgaria, which, like Ukraine , lies on the Black Sea.
“We are united in our determination to counter Russia’s attempts to destroy the foundations of international security and stability,” the leaders of the 30 allied countries said in a joint statement after meeting in Brussels on Thursday.
The human tragedy unfolding in Ukraine has eclipsed a concern across Europe that Putin may miscalculate if not intentionally escalate the conflict by using chemical or nuclear weapons in Ukraine or attempt to punish neighboring countries. NATO for supporting Ukraine by attacking them militarily.
“Unfortunately, there is no longer a single country that can live with the illusion that it is safe,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said, referring to his fellow European NATO members.
With this threat in mind, the United States and other allies began to assemble combat forces in Bulgaria and other Eastern European NATO countries – not to enter directly at war, but to send Putin the message that if he expanded his war, he would face allied resistance.
Speaking at a windswept training field in Bulgaria last week, US Army Major Ryan Mannina of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment said the tension was palpable.
“We are very aware that there is a war a few hundred kilometers from us,” he said.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
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