Two weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s “precision strikes” have become much less precise and its ground forces are laboring to seize territory.
On the eve of the offensive, some US officials predicted Kyiv would fall within 48 to 72 hours of hostilities beginning. Yet the blue-and-yellow flag of Ukraine still hangs from its buildings. There was glib talk of the Ukrainian state being “decapitated;” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky still proclaims defiance.
If, as Putin asserted, Ukraine was not a real country, it would surely have collapsed by now. But even with 150,000 Russian troops inside its borders, according to US assessments, they control at most about 10% of Ukraine.
Traveling around Ukraine in the three weeks before the invasion, it seemed many people were in denial. “We are certain there will be no war,” was the refrain – in Mariupol, Zaporizhzia and Kyiv. The Ukrainian government also played down the build-up of Russian forces, anxious not to panic its citizens and the markets.
Then, on February 24, it was as if a switch had been flicked. Overnight, denial became defiance.
Now the refrain is: “I’m going to war. It’s my land.”
Serious defenses and countless checkpoints have popped up around Kyiv. Ukrainian forces – to the surprise of many observers – have been nimble and effective against Russian armor that has struggled to make progress. Small, mobile units that know the territory have cut down Russian convoys. The anti-tank weapons acquired mainly from the US and UK have left smoking hulks on roads across the country. Turkish-made attack drones have been deployed to precise effect.
In the few areas occupied by Russian forces – even those that are predominantly Russian-speaking – crowds of hundreds have hurled abuse at bewildered Russian soldiers. They have built mountains of tires to defend their towns and painted over street signs.
Not that the Ukrainians have the upper hand. They can’t defeat a vastly superior Russian force, but the evidence so far suggests that – fortified by weapons and other help flowing across the border from Poland – they may yet deny Putin victory.
The longest fortnight
A British Prime Minister once observed that a week is a long time in politics. The two weeks of this conflict seem like an eternity, in terms of how they have changed the world.
Four Ukrainians I was sitting with in Kyiv looked on in horror during the early hours of February 24, as Putin’s address announcing a “special military operation” was broadcast on Russian television – imagining that the freedoms they had come to enjoy were about to be crushed.
Minutes later, the sky lit up as ballistic missiles slammed into Boryspil airport outside Kyiv. Russian forces poured across the border, from Crimea, Belarus and western Russia.
And then, not exactly nothing, but nothing overwhelming. The supposedly awe-inspiring 40-mile column of Russian troops driving in from Belarus sat still, going nowhere – more trucks than tanks. Ukraine’s venerable air defenses did a better-than-expected job in taking out cruise missiles and Russian fighter jets.
And crucially, Russian efforts to seize bridgeheads to the north and south of Kyiv in the first days of the campaign failed.
Even in the south of the country, where Russian units have met less resistance, they have yet to take the port of Mariupol – half an hour’s drive from the border.
In explaining the invasion, Putin argued that Ukraine would otherwise become a platform for the West to invade and destroy Russia. He may have miscalculated the likely response to his attempt to swallow a country that, in his dark rewriting of history, had no right to exist.
“In taking this extraordinary gamble, he seems to have failed to recall the events that set in motion the end of the Russian empire,” write Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage in Foreign Affairs.
“The final Russian tsar, Nicholas II, lost a war against Japan in 1905. He later fell victim to the Bolshevik Revolution, losing not just his crown but his life. The lesson: autocratic rulers cannot lose wars and remain autocrats.”
Perhaps lulled by the anemic Western response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin underestimated the galvanizing effect of his “war of choice.”
NATO itself has rarely seemed so focused, a far cry from the carping that characterized the alliance during Donald Trump’s presidency. Truckloads of anti-tank weapons have trundled to Ukraine’s border.
Before this invasion, as a raft of international sanctions against Russia was debated, even hawks could only dream of cutting off Russian institutions from the international banking system, hunting down the assets of Russian oligarchs, ending or reducing imports of Russian oil and gas and mothballing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. All have now happened.
One company after another, from McDonalds to Zara to Apple, has severed links with the country – depriving Russians of the consumer goods they had come to love since the end of communism. The ruble is worth less than half what it was in mid-February.
Outmaneuvered on the battlefield, the Kremlin has also taken a beating in the court of public opinion – not that that has ever bothered Putin. Zelensky, comic actor turned President, has risen to the challenge with pithy defiance and direct demands for a no-fly zone.
As speculation swirled about how Zelensky might be evacuated from Ukraine, he said he needed ammunition – not a ride. He recorded an almost cheeky video message from the Presidential Palace, saying he wouldn’t hide.
Zelensky – and Ukraine’s resilience in the face of overwhelming odds – has struck a chord across the world. Football stadiums across Europe have been decked in the Ukrainian colors, the Eiffel Tower has shone blue and yellow. The seemingly endless flow of video messages from Zelensky has brought crowds to the streets of Prague and Tbilisi and drawn standing ovations in the British and European parliaments.
By contrast, Putin has seemed isolated, snapping at subordinates, recording wooden rambling speeches or surrounding himself with Aeroflot flight attendants.
The great question now is whether a furious Russian leader, despite asserting that the “operation” continues to schedule, doubles down with the vast arsenal at his disposal: ballistic and cruise missiles, devastating rocket systems and thermobaric bombs. Will he turn Kyiv into another Grozny, the Chechen capital razed to the ground during his first year in power?
CIA Director William Burns assessed Tuesday that Putin is “determined to dominate and control Ukraine,” and predicted an “ugly next few weeks” with “scant regard for civilian casualties,” in the face of opposition from the Ukrainian people.
Thursday’s talks in Turkey between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers may give us the first clue as to whether there is an alternative to those ugly weeks.
The Kremlin has demanded that Ukraine recognize Russian sovereignty in Crimea, annexed in 2014, the independence of two puppet republics in eastern Ukraine and the country’s neutrality.
Ukraine has said no, though Zelensky now seems to acknowledge that Ukraine’s dream of joining NATO, enshrined in its constitution, may be even more distant than it was before. For its part, Moscow appears to have dropped its demand for what it has called the de-Nazification and de-militarization of Ukraine – its absurd phraseology for regime change.
In the meantime, the daily suffering of Ukrainian civilians goes on. Some are killed in missile strikes that flatten apartment buildings, others caught by those less-then-precise artillery attacks. The number is already in the many hundreds, but there is no official toll.
Two million have fled the country altogether – overwhelmingly women and children. If and when they come back they will find cities like Kharkiv, Sumy, Mariupol and Chernihiv almost unrecognizable.
Absent some breakthrough in the days to come, a much longer list is inevitable.