2 weeks of war have revealed cracks in Putin’s plan (analysis)

Kyiv, Ukraine (CNN) 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 struggling to seize territory.

On the eve of the offensive, some US officials predicted that Kiev would fall within 48 to 72 hours of the start of hostilities. However, the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag still hangs from its buildings. There was simplistic talk that the Ukrainian state would be “decapitated”; Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky still poses the challenge.

If, as Putin claimed, Ukraine was not a real country, surely it would have collapsed by now. But even with 150,000 Russian troops inside their 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 like a lot of people were in denial. “We are sure that there will be no war,” was the refrain in Mariupol, Zaporizhzia and Kyiv. The Ukrainian government also downplayed the buildup of Russian forces, anxious not to scare its citizens and markets.

Then on February 24, it was like a switch had been flipped. Overnight, denial turned into defiance.

Now the refrain is: “I’m going to war. It’s my land.”

Ukrainians demonstrate in Kherson on March 5 to protest the Russian occupation.

Ukrainians demonstrate in Kherson on March 5 to protest the Russian occupation.

Serious defenses and countless checkpoints have sprung 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 reduced Russian convoys. Anti-tank weapons purchased mainly from the US and UK have left smoldering wreckage 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 insults at bewildered Russian soldiers. They have built mountains of tires to defend their villages and have painted street signs.

Not that the Ukrainians have the upper hand. They cannot defeat a vastly superior Russian force, but the evidence so far suggests that, bolstered by weapons and other aid flowing across the border from Poland, they can still deny victory to Putin.

The longest fortnight in Ukraine

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 watched in horror in the early hours of February 24 as Putin’s speech 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 crossed the border, from Crimea, Belarus and western Russia.

And then not exactly nothing, but nothing overwhelming. The supposedly impressive 40-mile (60-kilometre) column of Russian troops arriving from Belarus stood still, going nowhere: more trucks than tanks. Ukraine’s venerable air defenses did a better-than-expected job of taking out Russian cruise missiles and fighter jets.

And, more importantly, Russian efforts to seize the bridgeheads north and south of Kyiv in the early days of the campaign failed.

Even in the south of the country, where Russian units have met less resistance, they still have to take the port of Mariupol, half an hour’s drive from the border.

Russian attacks have no limits, Ukrainian denounces 0:26

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 up a country that, in his dark rewriting of history, had no right to exist.

“In taking this extraordinary gamble, he appears not to have remembered the events that set in motion the end of the Russian empire,” write Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage in Foreign Affairs.

“The last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, lost a war against Japan in 1905. He later fell victim to the Bolshevik revolution, losing not only his crown but also 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 criticism that characterized the alliance during Donald Trump’s presidency. Trucks full of anti-tank weapons have arrived at the Ukrainian border.

Before this invasion, while a series of international sanctions against Russia were being discussed, even the hawks could hardly dream of isolating Russian institutions from the international banking system, hunting down the assets of Russian oligarchs, ending or reducing imports of oil and gas Russians and suspend the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Everything has happened now.

Company after company, from McDonalds to Zara to Apple, has severed ties 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 of what it was worth in mid-February.

Outmatched on the battlefield, the Kremlin has also taken a beating in the court of public opinion; not that that has ever bothered Putin. Zelensky, a comic actor turned president, has met the challenge with a terse challenge and direct demands for a no-fly zone.

While there was speculation about how Zelensky might be evacuated from Ukraine, he said he needed ammunition, not a ride. He recorded an almost brazen video message from the Presidential Palace, saying that he would not hide.

Zelensky, and Ukraine’s resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, has struck a chord around the world. Football stadiums across Europe have been decked out in Ukrainian colours, the Eiffel Tower shining blue and yellow. Zelensky’s seemingly endless stream of video messages has drawn crowds to the streets of Prague and Tbilisi and prompted standing ovations in the British and European parliaments.

Instead, Putin has seemed isolated, criticizing his subordinates, recording incoherent speeches or surrounding himself with Aeroflot flight attendants.

The big question now is whether a furious Russian leader, despite claiming the “operation” is still on schedule, doubles down on 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 “ugly weeks ahead” with “little regard for civilian casualties” in the face of opposition from the Ukrainian people.

Thursday’s talks in Turkey between the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine 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 appears to acknowledge that Ukraine’s dream of joining NATO, enshrined in its constitution, may be even more distant than before. For its part, Moscow appears to have abandoned its demand for what it has called the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine, its absurd phraseology for regime change.

Meanwhile, the daily suffering of Ukrainian civilians continues. Some are killed in missile strikes that bring down apartment buildings, others are pinned down by those less accurate artillery strikes. The number is already in the many hundreds, but there is no official figure.

Two million have fled the country in total, mostly women and children. When they return, they will find cities like Kharkiv, Sumy, Mariupol and Chernihiv almost unrecognizable.

In the absence of any progress in the coming days, a much longer list will be inevitable.

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