Nearly four weeks into the Russo-Ukraine war, the situation is going from bad to worse for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Garry Kasparov reported on Saturday that a joke is making the rounds on what is left of the Russian Internet: “We are now entering day 24 of the special military operation to take Kyiv in two days.”
The Russian offensive has already “culminated” — a military term meaning that an army can no longer continue attacking — without having achieved most of its objectives. Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute, two Washington think tanks, assess that “Ukrainian forces have defeated the initial Russian campaign of this war.” The war is stalemated.
The Russians have made the greatest progress in the south. They are close to establishing a “land bridge” between Crimea and Russian-occupied territory in eastern Ukraine. After weeks of vicious bombardment, Russian troops have entered the city of Mariupol. Unless Ukrainian reinforcements can somehow break the Russian siege, it appears that Mariupol will eventually fall. But the long delay in taking Mariupol has prevented Russian troops from pivoting to try to encircle Ukrainian troops fighting in Donbas or to reinforce the attack on Kyiv.
The situation elsewhere, even in the south, is dismal for the invaders. Ukrainian troops have counterattacked and driven the Russians away from Mykolaiv, a city of 470,000 people. As long as Mykolaiv remains free, the Russians cannot attack Odessa — Ukraine’s third-largest city and its biggest Black Sea port — by land and therefore cannot risk an amphibious assault from the sea, either.
Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, is located only 20 miles from the Russian border and is full of ethnic Russians. It was supposed to fall fast. But it is still not encircled and continues to hold out despite the terrible destruction inflicted by Russian artillery and rockets.
The main Russian effort has been to take Kyiv, but the last Russian offensive around the capital occurred on March 9. Remember that miles-long convoy that got bogged down heading to Kyiv? It never did reach the city. Ukrainian forces have counterattacked and driven the Russians out of outlying towns to prevent them from shelling the city center with artillery. Satellite imagery shows Russian troops digging into defensive positions. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky remains in Kyiv rallying his people and the world to resist the Russian onslaught.
Russia was supposed to establish air superiority in the war’s early days but hasn’t managed to do so. One of the most astonishing dispatches I have read from the front line comes from the Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov. He tweeted on Friday: “Ukrainian roads are full of military convoys carrying tanks, long-range artillery, and even S-300 [long-range surface-to-air missiles] in broad daylight every day, in addition to fuel and ammo. Don’t think there was a single strike on a moving target outside immediate frontline areas — Russia lacks that capacity.”
That means there is little to stop the continuing influx of Western aid; President Biden just announced an $800 million U.S. package that includes 800 Stinger antiaircraft missiles, 2,000 Javelin antitank missiles, 100 drones and more than 20 million rounds of ammunition. In the meantime, Russian supply convoys continue to bog down because of mud, lack of fuel and effective Ukrainian attacks.
This is a fiasco for Putin, and that grim reality cannot be disguised by the fascist-style arena extravaganza he staged on Friday featuring state workers press-ganged into showing support for the “special military operation.” This propaganda event went about as well as the war itself: Putin was cut off in mid-speech by a technical glitch.
Russian troop morale is said to be plunging as their difficulties multiply. Russian casualties are overwhelming morgues and hospitals in Belarus. Russian losses in the first three weeks were estimated to be at least 7,000 dead and 14,000 wounded, and 1,000 more are estimated to be killed or wounded every day. Russian forces are literally being decimated, suffering at least 10 percent casualties. Five generals are reported to be among the dead. The equipment losses are staggering: The Russians are reported to have lost 1,500 vehicles, including 240 tanks. It is not clear how, or if, Russia can replace all these men and materiel.
Putin has reportedly placed under house arrest the head of the FSB’s Fifth Service, charged with providing intelligence on Ukraine. This shows that he is looking for scapegoats. But is he also looking for a way out? His Stalin-like speech last week lashing out at “scum and traitors” is not a good sign; it suggests he is digging in. Sadly, just about the only thing Russian troops are good at is killing civilians, and they have the capacity to kill a lot more. Putin could escalate with chemical or even nuclear weapons. But there are also reports of progress in peace negotiations.
Putin can’t hang on indefinitely if his army continues to suffer heavy losses; he won’t have much of a military left. Russian troops could still pause and regroup for another offensive, but their odds of success diminish by the day. The initial Russian goal of regime change already appears to be out of reach. Barring some unexpected development, Putin’s choices appear to be whether to lose quickly or slowly. Against all odds, the Ukrainians are actually winning.