Ukrainian invasion isn't going how Putin planned

One month in, Russia's invasion of Ukraine isn't going how Moscow planned.

The war has come with a terrible human cost, killing thousands on both sides including civilians, while turning millions into refugees and cities into bombed out shells of their former selves. 

The biggest uncertainty remains how the war will end, and what Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to walk away from a disastrous military confrontation that has strangled his country's economy while dealing a serious blow to the prestige of Russia's military.

Russian forces, while making progress in the south, have not captured Kyiv and have even been pushed back as they try to advance on the capital.

“Four weeks into this war it's very evident it's not going as Russia intended, planned, and expected,” said Steven Horell with the Center for European Policy Analysis.

But experts are unsure how much longer the conflict will last – even as both sides are facing the tolls of war and the world ratchets up its sanctioning of Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been eager to sit down with Putin to find a resolution. He’s largely abandoned his hopes of joining NATO, instead eyeing other methods to secure the protection of allies from Russia. 

Putin on the other hand has floated using chemical weapons in the fight and is overseeing a propaganda machine that seeks to conceal from the Russian public the devastating consequences of his invasion.

“Short term is the negotiations scenario where Zelenski and Putin finally sit down after their foreign ministers work things out. They finally sit down and they come to this agreement that okay, Ukraine will be neutral with all these guarantees,” William Taylor, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told The Hill.

“The long-term scenario is one where Putin refuses to acknowledge reality, continues to fight. His people continue to fight. Not well, but they continue on. And Ukrainians continue to fight until they win, until they push the Russians out of Ukraine,” he added.

“That’s the long version where a lot of people die. Ukrainians and Russians. But in the end, the Ukrainians will prevail.”

NATO on Wednesday estimated that roughly 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and up to 40,000 were dead, wounded, taken prisoner or missing since the country’s attack on Ukraine began four weeks ago.

The Kremlin on Friday said it has lost 1,400 soldiers in the invasion, an update from its last such notification on March 2, when it said almost 500 soldiers were killed.

The United Nations estimates that 1,081 Ukrainians have been killed in the conflict and 1,707 injured.

“You're describing war crimes. You're describing monstrous acts. You're describing acts, events, decisions, actions that will be remembered as historically horrific for generations and generations,” Taylor said.“We’ve seen Ukrainians withstand that.”

But while Taylor is hopeful a settlement could bring a ceasefire in as little as two months, others are projecting a more long-term conflict with a recalcitrant Putin.

“Because Russia isn’t going anywhere, I don’t personally think Putin is going anywhere either, and so the Ukraine conflict, which unfortunately shows no sign of abetting, and could conceivably go on for weeks if not months more, NATO needs to think beyond that initial time frame, about, ‘ok how are we going to deal with Putin’s Russia in the next six months, 12 months, and etc,’” said Sara Bjerg Moller, assistant professor at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.

In the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance, Russia on Friday appeared to somewhat limit its aims, saying it would focus on eastern Ukraine and the Donbass region that already had Russian-backed separatist movements.

But even lowering its sites may not do much to unwind the conflict, let alone ease Ukrainian nerves.

“A month ago, people would have said just surviving and getting to this point four weeks later, would have looked like winning. But now if you end up with a military stalemate and a negotiated settlement that falls short of reclaiming Crimea and the Donbass, that may not look as much like winning as it would have four weeks ago,” Horrell said.

And Russia has continued its threats that it may use chemical weapons in the invasion.

While the U.S. and NATO have said they would respond accordingly, they have not outlined how.

“They're obviously trying to get the Ukrainians to surrender and the other thing is if they do use one of their weapons and nothing happens, their other goal is to show NATO is a toothless organization,” said Angela Stent, who has written numerous books on U.S.-Russia relations.

“They didn’t think there was going to be this kind of NATO unity–the Russians. They miscalculated that too.”

While Ukrainians have held strong, so have its allies across Europe and in the U.S. 

In some cases Ukraine has asked for more from its allies than they have been willing to give, including a commitment to defend a no-fly zone that the U.S. fears would escalate the conflict.

But counties across the globe have enacted sanctions on a number of Russian officials and entities, a list that only grew larger Thursday when the U.S. announced sanctions on an additional 400 people, including members of the Russian Dumas. 

And some countries have made big sacrifices, including Germany, which halted certification of the Nordstream 2 pipeline set to deliver the country Russian natural gas.

“The problem is Europe particularly, but we in the end, we’re all going to feel the impact of the sanctions. I mean, the Europeans will see it with much higher gas prices. They're going to see it with higher food prices, with supply chain problems. We'll see some of that in the U.S.,” said Stent.

“So it's going be harder to keep this coalition together as this drags on and people ask is the economic sacrifice that we're experiencing worth it for what's going on?”

But in broad strokes, Putin has brought renewed purpose to NATO.

“Putin talked about reshaping the global security architecture. He may get that but not in a way that he wanted,” Horrell said.

Taylor credited Zelensky with helping inspire and fortify Ukrainian resolve.

“[Putin] doesn't understand that for Ukrainians, this is existential. This is total war. They're fighting for their lives; they're fighting for the existence of their nation.”

But getting Putin to walk away from the conflict may be difficult.

“What it takes is for him to realize that it’s going badly for him on the battlefield…For him to realize that his economy is being devastated. That the unity of the international community in imposing costs on him for this unprovoked war is more than he can handle,” Taylor said. “He needs to recognize that these 16,000 Russian soldiers who have died already are going back to be buried in Russian cities and towns and villages.

“What has to happen is he has to figure out that he's losing.”

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