The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

War in Ukraine enters a new phase, even more unpredictable and dangerous than the last

A destroyed school not far from the center of Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 28. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

The initial stage of the war in Ukraine has confounded expectations. Russia’s military invasion failed in key objectives, upending predictions of a rout of Ukraine. Then, after years of avoiding direct confrontations with Moscow, Western nations are now directly punishing Russian President Vladimir Putin and his allies with truly devastating economic sanctions while openly supplying arms to Ukraine.

But after five days of fighting, there is little sign that this conflict will end soon. Instead, the conflict appears to be moving to another phase, more unpredictable and dangerous than the first. Fighting in Ukraine is escalating, not scaling back, while the rhetoric between Russia and the West has reached levels of aggression not seen since the height of the Cold War.

Though there were peace talks for the first time on Monday, there are no signs that the cycle of escalation will go down. Amid unprecedented global pressure, Putin is doubling down on a defensive posture that pits Russia against almost everyone else in the world. He has ratcheted up the levels of violence in eastern Ukraine, bombarding the city of Kharkiv with suspected cluster munitions, while putting the country’s nuclear arsenal on alert.

This refusal to back down is a reminder of a now-infamous story Putin has told about once chasing a rat into the corner of a stairwell outside his childhood home in a Soviet housing block in Leningrad. “It had nowhere to run. So it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me,” the Russian leader recounted in a book of interviews first published in 2000.

It was a formative experience for the future leader; a “quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered,” as Putin explained.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine could be backfiring

But who is cornered now? For centuries, Russia has been the swaggering bully of the region, dominating its neighbors with size and ambition. In speeches and comments before invading Ukraine, Putin had dismissed the country as an accident of history that was an “inalienable part of [Russia’s] history, culture and spiritual space.”

But while, on paper, the differences in military capability between Russia and Ukraine are huge, Moscow’s initial bid to invade its smaller neighbor has floundered. From the failure to secure air superiority over the tiny Ukrainian air force to the remarkable logistical issues that have let Russian tanks run out of gas, the early stages of conflict have humiliated Russian forces.

“Russia is actually showing the world they are not as strong as we thought they were,” John Spencer, an Army veteran who chairs the urban warfare studies department at the U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute, told my colleagues this weekend.

And yet rather than back down, Russia may simply respond with more aggression. In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, local officials said Monday that heavy shelling has targeted residential areas of the city. Cluster munitions, a type of explosive known for their indiscriminate impact, have been reported. Dozens have been reported wounded already.

Experts caution that any pretense that Russia was seeking to avoid civilian casualties may now be gone — Kharkiv could now face the type of devastation wrought by Russia on Grozny during the Second Chechen War, or Aleppo in the Syria war. A senior U.S. defense official told reporters Monday that Russians appeared to be trying to encircle Kyiv and other cities, potentially resorting to siege tactics.

On the international stage, it is Russia under siege. Moscow is facing levels of international isolation worse than during the Cold War. Western sanctions on Russia’s central bank, Finance Ministry and its sovereign wealth fund have cut off much of the Russian economy from the international finance system, prompting a sharp decline in the value of the ruble and long lines at ATMs in Russia.

Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and many other officials and oligarchs had already been personally sanctioned by Western governments.

Western nations, even those traditionally neutral, are providing Ukraine with arms or banning Russian planes from their airspace. The isolation goes beyond government measures: celebrities, private businesses and sporting organizations are among those that have publicly cut their ties to Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

At the least, there will be Russian collateral damage. The sudden economic turmoil in Russia will impact millions of ordinary citizens who have shown they have little interest in the war in Ukraine. Less sympathetically, hitting oligarchs’ Western assets could bind them only closer to Putin. Both scenarios could have knock-on impacts for non-Russians too, including higher oil and gas prices.

Some officials in NATO countries have come remarkably close to endorsing open conflict with Russia. British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said she supported the rights of citizens to go fight for Ukraine, describing it as a battle for freedom “not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe,” while retired general Philip Breedlove, a former NATO commander, called on the organization to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

How joining NATO and the E.U. became Ukraine’s unattainable dream

But how would that end? On Sunday, Putin put his nuclear forces on alert. The decision was the result of “aggressive statements” and sanctions from the West, the Russian president said. The Kremlin, which has the world’s largest stockpile, had not made a similar statement since at least 1991, experts said.

Few believe we are on the cusp of direct nuclear conflict. But even the slim possibility that Russia could use a smaller, “tactical” nuclear weapon on Ukraine has troubled some analysts. “The use of one or more tactical nuclear weapons would be an unmissable attempt by Putin to break the unity of the West, and to test the resolve of some NATO countries,” nonproliferation expert Francesca Giovannini wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

A primary way to avoid more conflict is through diplomacy, such as the Monday talks held between Ukrainians and Russians in Belarus. The hope is that an exit ramp could be found quick, which would allow the West to lift sanctions and other restrictions on Russia before they cause too much damage.

But so far, the Russian president has refused to budge on his key demands, which include Ukrainian recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia, “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine and formal neutrality. Even if Putin is cornered, there may be no backing down.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.