The signs are abundant of how Ukraine frustrated Vladimir Putin’s hopes for a swift victory and how Russia’s military proved far from ready for the fight.
A truck carrying Russian troops crashes, its doors blown open by a rocket-propelled grenade. Foreign-supplied drones target Russian command posts. Orthodox priests in trailing vestments parade Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag in defiance of their Russian captors in the occupied city of Berdyansk.
Russia has lost hundreds of tanks, many left charred or abandoned along the roads, and its death toll is on a pace to outstrip that of the country’s previous military campaigns in recent years.
Yet more than three weeks into the war, with Putin’s initial aim of an easy change in government in Kyiv long gone, Russia’s military still has a strong hand. With their greater might and stockpile of city-flattening munitions, Russian forces can fight on for whatever the Russian president may plan next, whether leveraging a negotiated settlement or brute destruction, military analysts say.
Despite all the determination of Ukraine’s people, all the losses among Russia’s forces and all the errors of Kremlin leaders, there is no sign that the war will soon be over. Even if Putin fails to take control of his neighbor, he can keep up the punishing attacks on its cities and people. Ukraine’s president said Russia is trying to starve Ukraine’s cities into submission and that Putin is deliberately creating “a humanitarian catastrophe.”
“His instinct will be always to double down because he’s got himself into a dreadful mess, a huge strategic blunder,” said Michael Clarke, former head of the British-based Royal United Services Institute, a defense think tank.
Read: Ukraine’s leader warns war will cost Russia for generations
“And I don’t think it’s in his character to try to retrieve that, except by carrying on, going forward,” he said.
Putin’s forces are waging Russia’s largest, most complex combined military campaign since taking Berlin in 1945. His . His initial objective, which he announced in a television address on Feb. 24 as the invasion began, was to “demilitarize” Ukraine and save its people from “neo-Nazis” — a false description of Ukraine’s government, which is led by a Jewish president.
Fatefully, Putin underestimated the national pride and battlefield skills that Ukrainians have built up over the past eight years of battling Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.
At the start, Russians thought “they would install, you know, some pro-Russian government and call it a day and declare victory,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a researcher on Russia’s security at the Virginia-based CNA think tank. “That was sort of Plan A, and as near as we can tell, they didn’t really have a Plan B.”
Russia’s first apparent plan — attack key Ukrainian military targets, and make a quick run to Kyiv, the capital — failed immediately. It was foiled by Ukraine’s defenses along with the countless mistakes and organizational failures by a Russian force that had been told it was only mobilized for military drills.