May 24, 2024

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The dangerous new phase of Russia’s war in Ukraine, explained

Russia’s war in Ukraine has stretched on for more than two weeks, a relentless bombardment of the country’s cities and towns that has led to more than 500 civilian deaths, destroyed civilian infrastructure, and forced more than 2.5 million people to flee Ukraine, creating a new humanitarian crisis in Europe.

The devastation is far from over.

The scale of the Russian invasion — the shelling of major cities like Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv, in the east — hinted at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s larger aims: to seize control of Ukraine, with the goal of regime change. Though its military is far bigger than Ukraine’s, Russia’s apparently confounding strategic decisions and logistical setbacks, combined with the ferocity of Ukraine’s resistance, have stymied its advance.

That has not stopped a catastrophe from unfolding within Ukraine, even as it has prompted Western allies to effectively wage economic warfare against Moscow with unprecedented sanctions.

It will only get worse as this war grinds on, experts said. “Despite the surprisingly poor military performance of the Russian military to date, we’re still in the early opening phase of this conflict,” said Sara Bjerg Moller, an assistant professor of international security at Seton Hall University.

This toll is expected to climb, especially as the Russian offensive intensifies around Ukrainian cities, where shelling and strikes have hit civilian targets, and as efforts at high-level Ukraine-Russia negotiations have so far failed. All of this is happening as Russian forces appear to be preparing to lay siege to Kyiv.

A resident stands in a basement for shelter in Irpin, a northwestern suburb of Kyiv, on March 10.
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

“This war is about the battle of Kyiv,” said John Spencer, a retired Army officer and chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum.

Taking Kyiv would mean taking control of Ukraine — or at least deposing the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president whose defiance has galvanized the Ukrainian resistance. Most experts believe Russia will prevail, especially if it can cut off Kyiv, and the Ukrainian resistance, from supplies.

Just because Russia may ultimately succeed militarily does not mean it will win this war. A Ukrainian insurgency could take root. The political, domestic, and international costs to Russia could challenge Putin’s regime. The West’s sanctions are throttling Russia’s economy, and they could do lasting damage. Russia’s war has strengthened the Western alliance in the immediate term, but that political will could be tested as energy prices spike and as the war and refugee crisis wears on.

“War is never isolated,” Zelenskyy said in a video address Thursday. “It always beats both the victim and the aggressor. The aggressor just realizes it later. But it always realizes and always suffers.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks on a video later posted to Facebook, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 11.
Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

The war in Ukraine is likely going to become more violent

Russia’s strategic setbacks have undermined its mission to take Ukraine, but it has only exacerbated the brutal and indiscriminate war, barely a month old.

The longer and harder the Ukrainian resistance fights, the more likely Russia may deploy more aggressive tactics to try to achieve their aims. “This is what we would call a war of attrition. They are trying to grind down the Ukrainian people’s morale, and unfortunately, that includes the bodies of Ukrainians,” Moller said.

Urban warfare is particularly calamitous, as civilians who have not evacuated are often caught in the middle of battles that happen block-by-block. Russia’s military tactics in cities — witnessed in places like Syria and Grozny in Chechnya in 1999 — have shown little regard for civilian protection. Spencer, the urban warfare specialist, said even Putin is limited, to a degree, by the rules of war, and so he is likely to claim that civilian infrastructure — like hospitals — are also military targets.

But urban warfare is, by nature, murky and complex and often far more deadly. Even if Russia attempts precision attacks, it can have a cascading effect — Russia bombs alleged military targets, those operations move, Russia bombs again. “You’re going to use so many of them, the end result is the same as if you just used indiscriminate, mass artillery barrage,” said Lance Davies, a senior lecturer in defense and international affairs at the UK’s Royal Military Academy.

Even in the early days of this war, Russia’s efforts are already having this effect. “They’re causing tremendous damage to civilian infrastructure,” said Rachel Denber, the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “They’re taking many, many civilian lives.” Denber pointed to the use of weapons in heavily populated areas, including those that are explicitly banned, like cluster munitions. Human Rights Watch documented their use in three residential areas in Kharkiv on February 28. “You put that in a city like Kharkiv, and if it’s a populated area, no matter what you were aiming at, no matter what the target, it’s going to hurt civilians,” she said.

A doctor takes care of a boy who was injured by shelling, at a hospital in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on March 10.
Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations has confirmed at least 1,546 civilian casualties, including 564 killed as of March 10, though these numbers are likely undercounts, as intense fighting in some areas has made it difficult to verify statistics.

All of this is exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe on the ground in Ukraine, as shelling cuts off power stations and other supply lines, effectively trapping people within war zones in subzero temperatures without electricity or water, and with dwindling food, fuel, and medical supplies. In Mariupol, a city of 400,000 that has been under Russian siege for days, people were reportedly melting snow for drinking water. Humanitarian groups say the fighting is making it difficult to deliver aid or to reach those civilians left behind — often elderly or disabled people, or other vulnerable populations that didn’t have the ability to flee.

A man walks a bicycle down a street damaged by shelling in Mariupol on March 10.
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

Ukrainian and Russian officials agreed to a temporary ceasefire to establish humanitarian corridors out of six cities on March 9, but the enforcement of those safe passages has been spotty, at best. According to the United Nations, on March 9, evacuations did happen in some places, but there was “limited movement” in the vulnerable areas, like Mariupol and the outskirts of Kyiv. Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of shelling some of those routes, and have rejected Russia’s calls for refugees to be evacuated to Russia or Belarus. Russian officials have blamed disruption on Ukrainian forces.

The fighting across Ukraine has forced more than 4 million people to flee so far, according to the United Nations. About 1.9 million people are internally displaced within Ukraine, although tens of thousands of Ukrainians were already forcibly displaced before Russia’s invasion because of the eight-year war in the Donbas region. Many have taken refugee in oblasts (basically, administrative regions) in western and northwestern Ukraine.

Another 2.5 million Ukrainians have escaped, mostly to neighboring countries like Poland, Romania, and Moldova. It is Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, and host countries and aid agencies are trying to meet the astounding needs of these refugees, most of whom are women and children.

A military priest tries to comfort a crying woman who was evacuated from Irpin, at a triage point in Kyiv on March 9.
Vadim Ghirda/AP

A child looks out a steamed-up bus window as civilians are evacuated from Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on March 9.
Vadim Ghirda/AP

“They need warmth, they need shelter, they need transportation to accommodations,” said Becky Bakr Abdulla, an adviser to the Norwegian Refugee Council who is currently based in Poland. “They need food, they need water. Many need legal aid — their passports have been stolen, they’ve forgotten their birth certificates.”

How the war in Ukraine began, and what’s happened so far

For months, Russia built up troops along the Ukrainian border, reaching around 190,000 on the eve of the invasion. At the same time, Russia issued a series of maximalist demands to the United States and NATO allies, including an end to NATO’s eastward expansion and a ban on Ukraine entering NATO, among other “security guarantees.” All were nonstarters for the West.

But the short answer to why Russia decided to follow through with an invasion: Vladimir Putin.

From Putin’s perspective, many historians of Europe have said, the enlargement of NATO, which has moved steadily closer to Russia’s borders, was certainly a factor. But Putin’s speech on the eve of his invasion offers another clue: the Russian president basically denied Ukrainian statehood, and said the country rightfully belongs to Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin waits for Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko prior to their talks in Moscow on March 11.
Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik via AP

But Russia’s history of incursions, invasions, and occupations under Putin — including Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea — have foreshadowed a new, even more brutal war. Seen through this lens, he is not a madman, but a leader who came to power with the lethal siege of Grozny in Chechnya in 1999, who has pursued increasingly violent policy, and who has been willing to inflict civilian casualties to achieve his foreign policy goals.

In 2014, Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine that culminated in the occupation of the Crimea peninsula in the south. Later that year, Russia deployed hybrid tactics, such as proxy militias and soldiers without insignia, to attack the Donbas region, where 14,000 people have died since 2014. On February 22, in the days before Putin launched a full-fledged war on Ukraine, he sent Russian troops into Donbas and declared two provinces there independent.

This time, according to former State Department Russia specialist Michael Kimmage, Putin miscalculated the difficulty of taking over Ukraine. Still, as the days go on, this war could escalate to unimaginable levels of violence. “If Putin really is feeling very threatened, it’s possible that he will dig in his heels, double down and take a lot of risks in order to prevent any potential loss of power,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former intelligence officer who’s now a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

Russia is committing possible war crimes in Ukraine, and Ukrainians are responding with their full military force. They have also developed a strong civil resistance enabled by volunteers of all stripes. “All the nation is involved, not only the army,” said a Ukrainian person who has been supplying medicines.

According to US intelligence estimates, between 2,000 and 4,000 Russian personnel have died so far.

A convoy of vehicles evacuating civilians skirts a destroyed Russian tank in Irpin, near Kyiv, on March 9.
Vadim Ghirda/AP

But Russia’s initial setback could lead to blitzkrieg-style tactics. “We’re looking at World War II kinds of atrocities. Bombing of civilians, rocket fire and artillery, smashing cities, a million refugees; that what looked impossible before now looks within the realm,” said Daniel Fried, a former ambassador to Poland and current fellow at the Atlantic Council.

How the West has responded so far

In the aftermath of Russia’s Ukrainian invasion, the United States and its allies imposed unprecedented sanctions and other penalties on Russia, acting with a swiftness and cohesion that surprised some observers, including, most likely, Putin himself.

“The US and the Western reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is essentially blowing the lid off of sanctions,” said Julia Friedlander, director of the Economic Statecraft Initiative at the Atlantic Council. “Never in the past have we accelerated to such strong sanctions and economic restrictions in such a quick period of time — and also considered doing it on one of the largest economies in the world.”

There’s a lot of sanctions, and the US and its partners have only increased the pressure since. President Joe Biden announced on March 8 that the US would place extreme limits on energy imports from Russia — the kind of last-resort option that few experts thought might happen because of the shock to energy prices and the global economy. (Europe, far more dependent on Russian energy imports, has not joined these sanctions.) On March 11, Biden pushed Congress to strip Russia of its “most favored nation” status, which would put tariffs on Russian goods, though it’s likely to have limited impact compared to the slew of sanctions that already exist.

Ukraine’s resistance in the face of Russian aggression helped push Western leaders to take more robust action, as this fight became framed in Washington and in European capitals as a fight between autocracy and democracy. A lot of credit goes to Zelenskyy himself, whose impassioned pleas to Western leaders motivated them to deliver more lethal aid to Ukraine and implement tougher sanctions.

Residents evacuate Irpin, a northwestern suburb of Kyiv, on March 10, as Russian forces rolled their armored vehicles up to the northeastern edge of Kyiv, moving closer in their attempts to encircle the Ukrainian capital.
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

Among the toughest sanctions are those against Russia’s central bank. The US and European Union did this in an effort to block Russia from using its considerable foreign reserves to prop up its currency, the ruble, and to undermine its ability to pay for its Ukraine war. Russia had tried to sanction-proof its economy after 2014, shifting away from US dollars, but the EU’s decision to join in undermined Russia’s so-called “fortress economy.”

The US and the EU also cut several Russian banks off from SWIFT, the global messaging system that facilitates foreign transactions. As Ben Walsh wrote for Vox, more than 11,000 different banks use SWIFT for cross-border transactions, and it was used in about 70 percent of transfers in Russia. Even here, though, certain banks were excluded from these measures to allow energy transactions, and EU countries, like Germany, are so far blocking efforts to expand these penalties.

The US has targeted numerous Russian banks, including two of Russia’s biggest, Sberbank and VTB. The US, along with other partners, have put bans on technology and other exports to Russia, and they’ve placed financial sanctions on oligarchs and other Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin himself. Russian oligarchs have had their yachts seized in European vacation towns because of these sanctions, and the US has launched — and, yes, this is real — Task Force Kleptocapture to help enforce sanctions, although oligarchs’ actual influence on Putin’s war is limited.

These penalties are widespread — besides Europe, partners like South Korea and Japan have joined in. Even neutral countries like Switzerland have imposed sanctions (though there are loopholes.) Big Tech companies, cultural institutions, and international corporations, from Mastercard to McDonald’s, are pulling out of the country.

Experts said there are still some economic penalties left in the toolbox, but what’s already in place is massively damaging to the Russian economy. Russia’s economy is expected to dramatically shrink; its stock market remains closed. And even if these sanctions are targeted toward Russia’s ability to make war, the damage done to the Russian economic system will inevitably trickle down to ordinary Russians.

A Ukrainian soldier talks with a resident in a basement shelter in Irpin on March 10.
Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

The fallout will not be limited to Russia. Biden’s announcement of an oil embargo against Russia has increased energy prices; what Biden, at least, is calling “Putin’s price hike.” And Russia may still engage in some sort of countermeasures, including cyberattacks or other meddling activity in the West.

How we get out of this

The US is doing almost everything it can without officially being a party to the conflict. The US has funneled 17,000 anti-tank missiles so far, including Javelins and Stingers, to Ukraine. It has explored arrangements through Poland for Ukraine to acquire additional fighter jets and is considering sending more anti-aircraft equipment.

Biden rejected the US enforcement of a no-fly zone in Ukraine, a military policy that polls surprisingly well among Americans but essentially means attacking any Russian aircraft that enters Ukrainian airspace. Seventy-eight national security scholars came out against a no-fly zone, saying that scenario would edge the US too close to a direct conflict with Russia.

So far, negotiations between Russia and Ukraine have faltered. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, has said that the fighting could stop if Ukrainians agreed to neutrality (and no NATO membership), and agreed to recognize Crimea as Russian and the Donbas region as independent. “Is this a serious offer?” said Fried, the former ambassador who had experience working with Peskov. “It could be posturing. The Russians are liars.”

Zelenskyy has signaled some openness to neutrality, but Ukraine is going to want some serious security guarantees that it’s not clear Russia is willing to give.

The US’s absolutist rhetoric has complicated those efforts. Biden, in his State of the Union address, framed this conflict as a battle between democracy and tyranny. Even if a strong argument can be made in favor of that, given Putin’s actions, such language poses challenges for Western diplomats who must forge an off-ramp for Putin to end this war.

Ukrainian soldiers help an elderly woman cross a destroyed bridge as she evacuates from Irpin on March 8.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

“If it’s good against evil, how do you compromise with evil?” said Thomas Graham, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Putin does need a face-saving way to back down from some of his demands. But if we have a compromise solution to this conflict, we’re going to need off-ramps as well, to explain why we accept that less than a total defeat for Putin.”

In a Politico essay, Graham and scholar Rajan Menon proposed a framework for a negotiated outcome that begins with confidence-building measures between the US and Russia, rebuilding arms control treaties. The US and NATO would pledge that neither Ukraine nor Georgia will join NATO in the next several years or decades, though the possibility may be open someday. This would culminate in a “new security order for Russia,” they write. Russian academic Alexander Dynkin circulated a similar idea in the lead-up to the war.

Gavin Wilde, a former director for the National Security Council who focused on Russia during the Trump administration, says the opportunities for a diplomatic resolution have not yet been exhausted. “The conundrum we found ourselves in quite a lot with Russia is, you have to talk to them. Because lives are at stake. These are two nuclear powers, and you have to keep talking,” he said.

Volentini, a volunteer worker at a hospice for the elderly, cries as she talks with 88-year-old resident Galina before she is evacuated from Irpin on March 10.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Why a Russian victory is still likely — and what it means for the world

The world has been galvanized by Ukraine’s small victories in this conflict.

Still, Ukraine faces long odds. By the numbers, the Russian military budget is about ten times that of Ukraine. The Russian military has 900,000 active troops, and the Ukrainian military has 196,000. Ukrainians may have the tactical advantage and the spirit to persevere, but structural factors weigh in Russia’s favor.

This all presages what could be a long, drawn-out war, all documented on iPhones. “It’s not going to be pretty,” says Samuel Charap, who studies the Russian military at RAND. A siege of major Ukrainian cities means “cutting off supply lines to a city and making it intolerable for people to resist — to engender surrender by inflicting pain.”

Still, Russia’s performance so far has been so poor that the scales may ultimately tip toward Ukraine. Mark Hertling, who was the top commander of the US Army’s European forces before retiring in 2013, says that the corruption within the Russian military has slowed down the advance.

A member of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces walks near the remains of a Russian aircraft which crashed into a technology manufacturing building in Kharkiv on March 8.
Sergey Bobok/AFP via Getty Images

“Unless it’s just a continuous shelling — but I don’t think Russia can even sustain that with their logistics support. They have already blown their wad quite a bit in terms of missiles and rockets,” Hertling said. “They’re having trouble moving, they’re having trouble resupplying. And when you have those two things combined, you’re going to have some big problems.”

However this plays out, the cruel effects of this war won’t just be felt in Ukraine. It’s truly a global crisis. The comprehensive sanctions on Russia will have massive implications for the Russian economy, hurting citizens and residents who have nothing to do with their autocratic leader. There will also be vast knock-on effects on the world economy, with particularly frightening implications for food security in the poorest countries. Those effects may be most visceral for stomachs in the Middle East; Egypt and Yemen depend on Russian and Ukrainian wheat.

The unprecedented sanctions may have unprecedented impact. “We don’t know what the full consequences of this will be, because we’ve never raised this type of economic warfare,” Graham said. “It’s hard to overestimate the shock that the Russian military operation has caused around the world and the fears that it has stoked about wider warfare in Europe.”