He is left with a tough choice – how and where to replenish his depleted ground forces, whether to counter the influx of Western arms towards Ukrainian defenders, and at what cost he might escalate or widen the war.
Though Putin has failed to secure a quick victory, he is not backing down in the face of mounting international pressure, including sanctions, that have battered his economy.
The Western world is largely aligned against Mr Putin, but there is no sign that he is losing the support of the majority of the Russian public, which relies mainly on state-controlled television for information.
Ukrainian defenders, outgunned but benefiting from years of American and NATO training and a rising influx of foreign arms and morale support, are showing new signs of confidence as the invading force struggles to regroup.
Russia’s deficits in Ukraine may be the biggest shock of the war so far. After two decades of modernization and professionalization, Putin’s armed forces have proven ill-prepared, ill-coordinated, and surprisingly unstoppable.
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 – possibly as many as Russia has lost in a decade of war in Afghanistan.
Robert Gates, the former CIA director and secretary of defense, said Putin “must be overwhelmingly disappointed” with his military’s performance.
“Here we are in Ukraine and we see conscripts who don’t know why they are there, aren’t very well trained and just have huge command and control problems and incredibly lousy tactics,” Mr Gates said in an OSS Society-sponsored broadcast Forum a group honoring the WWII era intelligence service known as the Office of Strategic Services.
Battlefield trends are difficult to reliably discern from the outside, but some Western officials say they see potentially significant shifts. Air Vice-Marshal Mick Smeath, London’s defense attaché in Washington, says British intelligence believes Ukrainian forces are likely to have recaptured two towns west of the capital Kyiv.
“It is likely that successful counterattacks by Ukraine will disrupt the ability of Russian forces to reorganize and resume their own offensive against Kyiv,” Smeath said in a brief statement on Wednesday.
The Ukrainian Navy said Thursday it had sunk a large Russian landing ship near the port city of Berdyansk.
Faced with strong Ukrainian resistance, Russian forces have resorted to bombing urban areas, but have made little progress in capturing the main prize – Kyiv. The Pentagon said Wednesday that some Russian troops are digging into defensive positions outside of Kyiv rather than attempting to advance into the capital, and that the Russians have lost ground in some cases in recent days.
In an assessment released yesterday, the Atlantic Council said a major Russian breakthrough was highly unlikely.
Just before Mr. Putin started his war on February 24, some US military officials believed he could capture Kyiv in a short time – maybe just a few days – and that he could crush the Ukrainian military within weeks.
Putin, too, could have counted on a quick victory since he did not throw the bulk of his pre-established forces, estimated at over 150,000, into combat in the first few days. His air force did not hold its ground either. He has made limited use of electronic warfare and cyberattacks.
Mr Putin resorts to siege tactics against key Ukrainian cities, bombing from afar with his largely stagnant ground forces.
Stephen Biddle, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University, says Putin’s move is likely based on hopes that Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy give up rather than allow the killing and destruction to continue.
“It is very unlikely that this plan will work. The slaughter of innocent civilians and the destruction of their homes and communities mainly solidifies Ukrainian resistance and determination,” Mr Biddle said in an email exchange.
According to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby, Ukrainian units have begun counterattacking in some areas. But Ukrainians face an uphill battle, even as the United States and its allies accelerate and expand the flow of critical weapons and supplies, including anti-aircraft missiles and armed drones.
US President Joe Biden has promised to seek 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 outright, but the outcome will be determined by what Mr. Zelensky is willing to accept in a negotiated settlement.
“I find it highly unlikely that Russia will be defeated in detail on the battlefield,” Mr Breedlove said, given that Russia has a large reserve of armed forces to draw on. But Ukraine could see that victory will force Russia to pay such a high price that it is willing to reach an agreement and pull out.
“I think there’s a chance,” Mr Breedlove said.
With the outcome of the war in doubt, so is Putin’s broader goal of overturning the security order that has existed in Europe since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mr Putin is demanding that NATO deny membership to Ukraine and other former Soviet states such as Georgia, and that the alliance reduce its military presence to positions it held before expanding into Eastern Europe.
Nato leaders have rejected Putin’s demands and are increasing, with unusual speed, the presence of allied forces in Romania, Slovakia and Hungary – which border Ukraine – and in Bulgaria, which shares Ukraine’s Black Sea borders.
“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 nations said in a joint statement after their meeting in Brussels yesterday.
The human tragedy unfolding in Ukraine has overshadowed concerns across Europe that Putin, through misjudgment if not intentional, could escalate the conflict by using chemical or nuclear weapons in Ukraine or attempting to target neighboring NATO countries for to punish their support of Ukraine by military attacks.
“Unfortunately, there is now not a single country that can live with the illusion of being safe,” said Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, referring to his European NATO colleagues.
Faced with this threat, the United States and other allied countries have begun massing combat troops in Bulgaria and other NATO countries in Eastern Europe – not to go directly to war, but to send a message to Putin that he would face it if he did allied resistance would expand his war.
US Army Maj. Ryan Mannina of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment said the tension was palpable at a windswept training ground in Bulgaria last week.
“We are well aware that there is a war going on just a few hundred miles from us,” he said.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/putins-war-in-ukraine-nearing-a-more-dangerous-phase-but-experts-believe-russia-could-be-softening-to-the-prospect-of-a-deal-41487137.html Putin’s war in Ukraine is entering a more dangerous phase, but experts believe Russia may soften the prospect of a deal