Sadly, we are in the fog of war so it is difficult to truly assess what the actual situation on the ground in Ukraine is. Therefore, any analysis such as the one that follows should be taken with a grain of salt. But it certainly appears as though the Ukrainians are putting up a far stronger defense than anyone, the Russians and the West, expected. It also seems clear that even if the Russian forces succeed in taking Kyiv and installing a puppet regime, they will face a long and unrelenting guerrilla war in order to keep that regime propped up.
Currently NATO is openly funneling arms and support (and perhaps even intelligence clandestinely) to Ukraine but has also made it clear that boots on the ground are out of the question. The scenario of NATO troops engaged with Russian soldiers truly is the beginning of World War III and would be an internal propaganda tool for Putin and provide motivation for his army that it clearly lacks when fighting Ukrainians.
Putin has apparently massively overplayed his hand with this war, both at home and abroad. Even in the runup to the war, we saw the extraordinary pushback that the planned invasion was receiving from former Russian military leaders. That is almost unheard of. In addition, there are reports of Russian soldiers’ unwillingness to fight and even dumping their gas so that their vehicles and tanks are immobilized when they learn their destination is Kyiv. We’ve also seen extraordinary protests against the war across Russia and the lack of the typical extreme and harsh responses to those protests indicate Putin’s unpreparedness for them or an unwillingness within the police state to really crack down on them or both. We have also seen a member of the Duma who voted to send the “peacekeeping” forces to the disputed Ukrainian territories now demanding that the war be stopped immediately, saying, “Voting for the recognition of the DNR/LNR, I voted for peace, not for war. For Russia to become a shield, so that Donbas is not bombed, and not for Kyiv being bombed”. All of this is unprecedented.
In addition, there are reports from various foreign leaders who deal with Putin regularly as well as hints from various intelligence agencies that Putin has basically lost the plot. He has become incredibly isolated, especially since Covid. His speeches are rambling ravings of mythical history and grievance and injustice. And the reality-show “cabinet meeting” showed that not even the most senior levels of his government clearly understood what the plan was regarding Ukraine.
Right now, it seems the bigger danger is not NATO involvement but an already unstable Putin feeling more and more pressure to “win” this war as quickly as possible by using both chemical and biological warfare, as he has done in Syria and Chechnya, and even, God forbid, the use of tactical nukes. With crippling financial sanctions coming, that pressure will be further intensified. As one Western official noted, “My fear would be that if they [the Russians] don’t meet the timescales and objectives, they would be indiscriminate in the use of violence”. Just take a look at what the Russians did to Grozny in Chechnya for an example of that.
Unfortunately, we already see signs of such war-crime escalation. We already see cluster bombs being used against civilian targets. CNN reported on the Russian deployment of thermobaric weapons to Ukraine. Thermobaric rockets can vaporize a whole city block at once. More frightening is the Washington Post report that Putin has “ordered the Ministry of Defense to transfer the Strategic Missile Forces (this is not only nuclear weapons, but also the Kinzhal and Zircon hypersonic missiles) to a special mode of combat duty. This is the highest form of combat readiness of these troops”. Astoundingly and encouragingly, it appears that might be an open question whether the Russian military would go along with such war-crime escalation.
The decision to freeze the assets of the Russian central bank and at least a partial shutdown of the SWIFT international transfer system for certain other Russian banks are truly extraordinary sanctions and a step many did not believe the West would take. But it appears that US and EU leaders sense just how badly Putin has overplayed his hand, how unstable and dangerous he has become, how much internal dissent he is facing, and how strong and determined the Ukrainian opposition is, and have decided that this might be the chance to exert enough pressure to get Putin deposed from within. Let’s hope they succeed before Putin decides to level and destroy a Ukraine he cannot conquer.