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Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has entered its second month with scores of civilians dead, entire communities leveled, and perhaps most troubling, no end in sight.
The invasion has produced a mix of expected (economic pain in Russia) and unexpected developments (remarkable Ukrainian military resistance), leaving little room for confidence about what will happen next.
But what have we learned so far? CNN posed a few key questions to Henry Hale, a George Washington University professor whose expertise includes Russian politics. Our conversation, lightly edited for flow and brevity, is below.
What’s been surprising about the war?
Across Ukraine, Russian soldiers have met stiff resistance from Ukrainian fighters capably defending their country against all odds. In fact, Ukrainian forces have been trying recently to regain territory from the Russians, according to a senior US defense official, who described them as “able and willing” to do so.
But Ukraine’s military strength has not been the only surprise.
WHAT MATTERS: What has been most surprising to you one month into the invasion?
HALE: In the big picture, I think the invasion itself is just quite surprising in the stunning scale of the event in world history. While Russian President Vladimir Putin has certainly acted militarily before, very few people thought before, maybe a year ago, that Putin was actually contemplating a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
People within Russia didn’t expect it, most Ukrainians didn’t expect it. And most analysts, I think, also didn’t expect it. And what was interesting was that the Biden administration started warning that this was going to take place, and it turned out that they were right.
There are a number of other surprises that I think are also important. One, I think, is just the poor nature of Russia’s planning for this.
First of all, its military strategy appears to have been very ill-suited for the task at hand. It seems to have been based on the idea that Ukraine was going to capitulate within a matter of days, that it would be greeted with people coming out into the streets with flowers. And that just was based on a complete misunderstanding of Ukraine and the nature of Ukrainian society.
Another part of the poor planning that I think is also very important is that the Kremlin did not prime Russia’s own public well for this kind of action. Right up until the actual invasion was launched, Russian media were telling their own people: “We’re not going to invade.” Russian leaders were saying: “Look at how hysterical the West is talking about an invasion. That’s just crazy. No one’s talking about an invasion.”
And so what that meant was that once the actual invasion started, they had to convince people that it was not an invasion. And that means elaborating a whole propaganda edifice around the idea that this is just a limited military operation, that somehow there are Nazis in Kyiv that are attacking freedom-loving people in the Russian-occupied territories of eastern Ukraine – that this is all part of a grand Western scheme to eventually take down Russia, bring it under its control. And so supporting such a lie is very, very difficult.
Another surprise has been the capabilities of the Ukrainian military. Most people’s memory of Ukraine’s military came from 2014 (when Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine).
It turns out that, behind the headlines, significant military reform efforts have been taking place, including a restructuring of the decision-making process within the military there, which included giving local commanders more autonomy to make calls. And this turns out to have been quite important because the Ukrainian military has managed to hold its own against the much larger Russian military for this first month of the crisis.
What’s played out as expected?
Other elements of the invasion, like Russian troop morale and Putin’s crackdown on dissent within Russia, are playing out as expected under the circumstances.
WHAT MATTERS: What hasn’t surprised you?
HALE: I think one thing that that was to be expected is the poor Russian troop morale. In part, this relates to what I said about one of the surprises, which was people in Russia were not prepared for the idea of an invasion.
But I think part of the reason that they didn’t initially want to prepare them to actually support an invasion of Ukraine is that it would be very hard to convince people that something like this would be actually necessary. And it turns out basically they sent these soldiers into combat having told them: “Well, you’re just going to be participating in exercises.” But then they find themselves sent into Ukraine, shooting on people who they are told are Nazis but don’t really look much like Nazis.
And in this context, I think one would expect that the actual Russian troops themselves might not be that highly motivated. And I think that’s something that we see.
Another thing that has played out as expected if Russia were to launch something like this is that the invasion is accompanied by a harsh crackdown within Russia itself on any kind of dissent and the spread of any kind of accurate information.
So they’ve basically tried to cut off any sources of external information. They’ve made it illegal to even call this a “war” or an “invasion.” You have to use the officially, approved terminology of a “military operation,” or “a targeted operation” to “denazify” Ukraine.
Western leaders present united front
Leaders attending a slew of emergency summits this week were working to settle on the next phase of their response to Russia’s war, with new US sanctions and refugee assistance among the steps emerging from the snap talks.
In a statement afterward, President Joe Biden said NATO was “as strong and united as it has ever been.”
WHAT MATTERS: How significant are the emergency summits among Western leaders?
HALE: I think that the different meetings are oriented toward possible developments that are going to happen in this war. And it’s very hard right now to anticipate exactly what they are, but I think people want to get on the same page.
I think it’s unlikely that Russia is going to be able to enjoy any kind of full victory. And so that raises lots of questions about what will need to be done in the future.
I’m personally skeptical that we’re going to see a negotiated end to this anytime soon. I think the Ukrainians are just too determined to fight. And if Putin is kind of failing sufficiently to be forced into a position of negotiation, I think Ukrainians are just going to be less and less willing to give him a break basically by recognizing any of the territorial gains that his military has made up to this point.
But at the same time, it’s prudent to keep diplomatic channels open.
Where do things go from here?
While there’s a growing picture that Russia’s assault on Ukraine has not gone to plan, the country continues to use its air power to obliterate cities and target civilians to push Ukraine into submission.
WHAT MATTERS: Some experts warn that we could be entering a deadlier phase of this war, with Putin feeling the need to double down on his attacks in the face of embarrassment. Do you share this concern?
HALE: Unfortunately, I think that is a very real concern. I think almost everything is at stake for Putin right now, because anything short of victory is going to be seen as a sign of weakness for him at a time when he’s already pushing 70 and questions are already arising within Russia even before these events about succession.
It’s not out of the question, sad to say, that he might decide that his only bet is to employ some kind of nuclear option. It’s hard to say exactly what that would be, but it’s possible. I don’t think that the Russian population is supportive, in general, of starting a nuclear war – certainly not deploying a nuclear weapon against people whom Putin and his regime have been constantly telling people are basically one people with Russians.
And so I think it’s possible that the use of a nuclear weapon could actually lead to the collapse of his regime among people who are appalled by that.
One would also hope that if he did order an action like that, that maybe some people within his command that would have to actually carry out that order would, at that point, refuse to carry out his orders. So it’s very hard to say.
I mean, if he really has gone so far in and is just willing to do anything in the hopes of saving himself and his regime, then I don’t think we can rule out some form of nuclear escalation here.
But I still harbor hope that, in fact, he’s not suicidal and would try to find some way short of that to be able to claim some kind of victory within Russia itself.
The US has information suggesting China has expressed some openness to providing Russia with requested military and financial assistance as part of its war on Ukraine.
That leaves open a troubling possibility for American officials – that China may help prolong a bloody conflict that is increasingly killing civilians, while also cementing an authoritarian alliance in direct competition with the United States.
WHAT MATTERS: What would it mean for China to provide Russia with military and financial assistance?
HALE: My sense is that the most important impact would be symbolic, giving Russia and people within the Russian regime a sense that this is not just Putin – that Russia and Putin have allies in this endeavor. And that might sustain their willingness to continue to prosecute this military operation that they’re engaged in and to kind of carry the invasion as far as they can.
And obviously if Russian supplies are weakened and Russia’s economy is already weakened, this will help reduce the costs that are felt by ordinary Russians resulting from these actions. So I think that’s kind of what’s at stake.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that it’s really in Chinese interests to really all out take the side of Russia. To some extent, I think it’s in China’s interest just to sit back and let the Russians and the Europeans and the Americans kind of go at it.
The big picture
Depending on your view, the West and Russia are now fighting the last struggle of the Cold War or the first in a new age of confrontation as autocracies like Moscow and Beijing form a broad hostile front against Western-style democracy.
WHAT MATTERS: Thinking long term, what kind of damage has Russia done to its reputation on the world stage, and what are the best and worst outcomes for Russia at this point?
HALE: Unfortunately these criminal actions, I think, have soiled Russia’s reputation probably for a generation in the world and in other countries of the post-Soviet space.
And of course exactly what that means will be affected by how the war ends. On one hand, if it winds up being that the Russian population somehow winds up toppling Putin, or people around Putin wind up toppling Putin and ending the war and pulling out the Russian troops, that would be the best outcome for Russia itself, because then at least it would give a lot of people within Russia credibility in saying, “Well, this was not us.”
On the other hand, if Russia continues to prosecute the war, if the regime stays stable, if most people within Russia are quiet or just leave – in which case then you have a highly autocratic system in Russia, much more autocratic than had been the case before.
I think this reputation is just going to be so toxic that you’re going to see a divide that very much resembles the divide between the communists and the free world during the Cold War, where there’s not going to be a lot of interaction across those borders. And that could last as long as the Kremlin is able to survive in power.
CNN’s Stephen Collinson contributed to this report.