The first high-level talks between Ukraine and Russia since the Feb. 24 invasion took place Thursday in Antalya, Turkey.
In a rare moment of consensus, the warring parties anything but okay on the lack of any serious progress. “Ukraine is strong. Ukraine is fighting. Ukraine has thwarted the initial Russian plans,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. “We are ready to seek balanced diplomatic solutions to end the this war, but we will not surrender.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the invasion, which Moscow calls a “special military operation,” “a life-and-death struggle for Russia’s place in the political map of the world,” reaffirming earlier signals from the Kremlin that Russian President Vladimir Putin will accept nothing less than Ukraine’s full surrender.
The Kuleba-Lavrov meeting was followed by what appears to be a new Russian offensive across Ukraine, with news of large-scale airstrikes against a slew of major cities in the west of the country. The Russian army struck Lutsk airport, located about 70 miles from the Polish border, and an airfield in the western province of Ivano-Frankivsk; Military experts say the actions are part of concerted Russian efforts to interdict ongoing Western arms shipments to Ukraine.
After being pinned down for several days, Russian troops on the outskirts of Kiev appear to be regrouping for a full-scale assault; US officials say the invading forces are only nine miles from the capital. It was reported on Friday that the small eastern town of Volnovakha had fallen to Russian-aligned separatist forces; the southeastern port hub of Mariupol and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, are both surrounded and subjected to constant airstrikes and shelling by besieging Russian forces. The Russian military is now targeting the strategically located central city of Dnipro with airstrikes as part of what appears to be Moscow’s broader war plan to cut off Ukrainian forces from territories east of the Dnieper.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said last week that more than 16,000 foreigners, mostly from NATO countries, have volunteered to fight in Ukraine’s “international legion”. Not to be outdone, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin at a meeting of the Russian Security Council on Friday that the Russian military had received more than 16,000 applications from the “Middle East”. and Syriato fight for Russia in the breakaway eastern territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. “If you see that there are people who want on a voluntary basis, especially not for money, to come and help people who live in the Donbass, well, we have to welcome them and help them move to the war zone,” Putin said.
Russian officials and politicians, including Putin and Lavrov, continue to insist that Russian military action in Ukraine is proceeding as planned. Yet it remains unclear what the original invasion plan was – there have been no verifiable timelines or other published documents to corroborate exactly what the Russian military aims to accomplish in Ukraine and how quickly. .
To the extent that the invading Russian forces underestimated Ukraine’s resilience, they were not alone. Western intelligence sources expected Kiev to fall in as little as forty-eight hours in the months leading up to the invasion; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, granted the Ukrainian capital no more than seventy-two hours in closed congressional briefings held in early February. But it has not been conclusively established that these Western assessments were widely shared by Russian intelligence, let alone informed the specific invasion plan approved by Putin. Russian military experts say the operation is being deliberately carried out at a slower pace to minimize collateral damage. “If the Supreme Commander-in-Chief had set a timeline of 3-4 days, believe me, the operation would have been completed within that time. [But] Russian troops act discreetly, precisely neutralizing the vectors of military resistance. If the operation is accelerated, there will inevitably be huge casualties among the Russian forces and the civilian population,” Major General Sergei Lipovoy told Russian media.
Nevertheless, there have been signs that the invading Russian forces are meeting significant resistance on the ground. The Ukrainian government claims that 12,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the start of the invasion; the Pentagon puts that number closer to 2,000 to 4,000. The Kremlin last shared the number of Russian casualties on March 2, when Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said that 498 Russian soldiers had been killed while claiming that 2,870 Ukrainian soldiers had died during the same period. The Ukrainian government has not released its own figures regarding Ukrainian troop casualties. The Russian Defense Ministry has repeatedly claimed over the past week that it has achieved air superiority over Ukraine, but US defense officials say the Ukrainian air force retains about 80% of its fixed-wing capabilities. A US official told reporters Friday that the Ukrainians “carry out about five to 10 outings a day”, against “about 200 for the Russians”, according to CNN.
Western experts have argued that the Russian war effort is hampered by a constellation of shortcomings in logistics, intelligence, command and control and operations. Yet others felt that the Kremlin could have prioritized his own political assumptions on a good military strategy. Putin presented the operation as an effort to “liberate” the Ukrainian people from the “gang of neo-Nazis and drug addicts” who were holding them hostage. Moscow may have fallen prey to the ideological assumption that the Kiev government, crippled by unpopularity and disloyalty in its military ranks, would be forced to capitulate in the early stages of the invasion, and that the forces advancing Russians would be overwhelmingly welcomed as liberators. in major cities of Ukraine. In short, Moscow may have bought into its own rhetoric that this is not a real war, but simply a “special military operation” to decapitate Ukraine’s leadership and impose regime change.
As the conflict enters its third week, the Russian military appears to be reducing and adjusting its tactics in anticipation of a protracted full-scale war that could eventually envelop all of Ukraine, not just the central and eastern regions. from the country. Hopes for a negotiated settlement remain extremely low, as does the prospect that Moscow may be forced to back down through any number of sanctions or battlefield setbacks.
The Kremlin has demonstrated that it is fiercely determined to impose a military solution in Ukraine, regardless of the growing death toll among troops, the high costs to the Russian economy and the devastation of the Ukrainian civilian population.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National interest.