Russia falters in Ukraine but unlikely to give up assault
The Biden administration is framing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a “strategic blunder” as Moscow’s assault enters its second month.
U.S. officials say Putin’s top aides are shielding the Russian leader from Moscow’s military losses, even as Russian forces shift some of their resources away from Ukraine’s capital city, Kyiv.
Some analysts believe the shift is a tacit acknowledgement that Russia cannot take and hold Kyiv as Putin had hoped.
But the administration is carefully stopping short of predicting an all-out Russian defeat.
Leaders in the U.S. and Ukraine are warning Russia is likely repositioning forces that have moved away from Kyiv to other areas of Ukraine, likely to focus its military might on taking full control of the eastern Donbas region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a speech delivered after midnight on Friday in Kyiv, echoed the view of Russia’s military faltering, but warned against declaring victory.
“The expulsion of the occupiers continues. But we must also realize that for the Russian military, this is part of their tactics,” he said in a video message.
“We know that they are moving away from the areas where we are beating them to focus on others that are very important, on those where it can be difficult for us,” he added.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian and Russian officials continue efforts to advance peace talks in Istanbul, though the discussions have yet to yield any breakthroughs.
Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, told The Hill by phone from Kyiv he is not optimistic about the talks but that “we need to try, and we are trying to find some solutions, that is the situation.”
He called for more military and humanitarian assistance and warned that Russia’s war is likely to continue for months.
“In reality, certainly nobody knows, but what I am telling people, please be ready for a long war,” he said. “It’s better to be prepared for [the] worst, and if it will finish quicker, we will be happy. But better to be prepared for the worst, that it can last for months and months.”
The U.S. and allies are working to maintain deliveries of key weapons and military assistance to Ukraine, ratcheting up sanctions on Russia, and executing contingency plans to offset impacts on the American and allied economies.
The administration declassified new intelligence saying Putin is being misled by his advisers over the failures in Ukraine. It paints a portrait of a leader increasingly isolated and lashing out in desperation.
President Biden told reporters offhand on Thursday that Putin may have put advisers under “house arrest,” a remark White House press secretary Jen Psaki said was based on public reports.
“This war is not going how President Putin had planned,” Psaki said. “This intention of winning a quick war, defeating the Ukrainians quickly is not how it has played out.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, former commanding general of the U.S. Army Europe, told The Hill that Russia had failed in its original plan and is shifting strategy.
“They no longer have the ability to conduct sustained land operations towards Odessa, towards Kyiv, anywhere towards west,” Hodges said.
“They’re going back to where they have most of their advantages, and I think they are going to try to continue grinding Mariupol and try to solidify what they have,” he added.
At the same time, Hodges argued that the U.S. needs to give the Ukrainians everything they need to push the Russians back to the territory they were in before the full invasion on Feb. 24 — meaning better air defense capability. Without it, the war could grind on much longer, he said.
“I think it’s up to us how much longer this goes on,” he said.
Goncharenko echoed that the country needs air defenses.
“That is our priority, number one, to defend our skies,” he said, calling for delivery of Soviet-era fighter jets from Poland and for countries in Eastern Europe to provide the Russian-made S300 missile defense system.
“Our officers and crew know what to do with them,” he added.
The U.S. announced $1 billion in additional military assistance to Ukraine in recent weeks, including Switchblade drones, which act as a discreet, remote-controlled missile.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters this week that about half a dozen shipments had already arrived in Ukraine that included Javelin anti-tank missile systems and Stinger air defense systems.
Psaki said Friday that more than $350 million in U.S. assistance to Ukraine has been delivered in the past few weeks. She also confirmed the U.S. is supplying the Ukrainians with equipment to protect against any Russian chemical or biological attacks.
But even as Russian forces retreat from Kyiv and reposition, Putin is not signaling defeat.
The Russian president reportedly ordered up 135,000 military conscripts, is preparing to send hundreds of Syrian mercenaries to Ukraine and has threatened to cut off Russian gas deliveries to Europe if not paid in rubles.
Ukrainians are digging in, fortifying the territories under their control and retaking cities and towns where Russians are leaving.
“I think Ukrainians can hold on for a very long time — but that of course is not the same thing as the Ukrainians being able to successfully counterattack on a very large scale,” said Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow on Russia and Europe at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “The Ukrainians have proved they sometimes can, but we’re not sure.”
Lieven added that it’s clear Putin’s army has suffered great losses in the war so far but that any exit from the conflict is likely to rely on the Russian leader looking to portray some element of victory.
“Once the Russians have taken, if they can, what Putin regards as politically essential, I think there is a pretty strong incentive for Russia to stop and seek a peace deal,” he said.
Russian negotiators have said very little publicly about Moscow’s position in the peace talks, while the Ukrainians have offered key concessions and areas of negotiation — including status as a neutral state, albeit with international security guarantees.
While Ukrainians have called for Russian troops to pull back to their positions before the invasion — that includes their occupation of the eastern territories of the Donbas and the Crimean Peninsula — they have offered the final status of those territories to be part of discussions.
“I do see Zelensky quietly preparing the population for concessions,” said Vladislav Davidzon, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council who has traveled between Ukraine and Europe over the past month and is at the border with Poland.
“At this point it’s going to be very difficult for him to get certain things agreed upon by the population and certain things he’s not in control of — so it will be an odd situation where Ukrainians will have to get the population on board and have to press the West to step down on certain sanctions.”
Gabrielle Rifkind, director of the Oxford Process, an organization focused on peacemaking efforts at the leadership level, said the international community needs to be vigilant in encouraging difficult compromises between Putin and the Ukrainians.
“To resolve conflict, you have to engage with all parties. And not only do you have to engage. You have to imagine how they’re thinking. … You have to write their victory speeches,” she said in remarks during a panel discussion hosted by the Quincy Institute on Tuesday.
But Davidzon echoed the view that the war is likely to drag out, with more devastation.
“It is going to be a protracted conflict, and the Russians, in order to not have a total defeat from their standpoint, there’s going to be a very dirty, long-term fight over the Donbas,” he said. “I’m very sorry about that. But the state is going to survive and Kyiv is going to stand.”
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