Fears of expanding conflict grow as Ukraine war churns into second year

First of a three-part series

The unthinkable has become the routine — a shooting war with tanks, trenches, drones and vast waves of refugees playing out in the heart of Europe. Russia’s military invasion of its neighbor is churning into its second year with growing fears that an imminent escalation could lead to a direct clash with NATO and decades of conflict pitting the Kremlin and its allies against the U.S. and Western-aligned democracies around the world.

To mark the anniversary of the day Russian forces first poured into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Washington Times correspondents Guy Taylor and Ben Wolfgang analyze the state of the war and go inside the mindset of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is pumping more troops and equipment into the war while attempting to break Ukraine’s morale with increased attacks on civil targets.

The three-day series examines how the world has changed in the past 12 months and how much is riding on the months to come, including the cutthroat internal political dynamics in Moscow, the ability of Ukraine’s government and armed forces to hold out against a bigger, better-armed adversary, the staying power of U.S. and European aid flows into Ukraine, and the potential impacts of imminent deliveries of German and American battle tanks.

More than 7,100 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, nearly 500 of them children.

Some 40,000 homes and apartments, 2,700 school structures and at least 1,200 medical facilities have been reduced to rubble.

Roughly 6.5 million people — mostly women and children — have been driven from their homes, according to Ukrainian and international officials, and nearly 8 million Ukrainians now live across Europe as refugees.

Beyond the hard numbers and ruined lives, the biggest mystery facing Ukraine, the U.S. and the world isn’t quantitative but psychological: What does Russian President Vladimir Putin want, and how far is he prepared to go to get it?

The Russian leader’s health — physical and mental — and his strategic motivations are no less debated today than they were a year ago when he gave the order for his military to invade Ukraine, overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and effectively wipe an “illegitimate” country off the map.

A fierce Ukrainian resistance and a shockingly poor performance by Russian troops quickly dashed the Kremlin’s expectations of a swift and easy victory.

Perhaps the most disturbing reality is that the carnage is likely to grow as Mr. Putin’s “special military operation” churns into its second year. The consensus of U.S. and European leaders is that the conflict won’t end soon and probably will take a turn for the worse as warmer weather allows for renewed offensive operations by both sides in the stalemated east and south.

For President Biden, NATO and the rest of the West, the challenge is to hold together the alliance that has armed Ukraine, imposed punishing sanctions on the Russian economy and found ways to undercut Russia’s power as a global energy exporter. For Mr. Putin and his generals, the challenge is to show progress on the battlefield, contain the economic and political costs domestically, and make the cost of continuing the fight unbearable for Kyiv and its allies.

Moscow does not appear ready to pull back or accept less than its maximalist demands.

Mr. Putin and Russia haven’t shown “the slightest sign” of being interested in serious negotiations to end the war, said the top European Union diplomat in Washington.

“In fact, they are beginning even more bloodshed now,” EU Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis told The Washington Times in an interview.

Russia invaded with roughly 110,000 troops. Intelligence officials say Moscow has nearly doubled that number in recent weeks to prepare for a massive springtime offensive to prove Russian staying power.

“They’re determined,” said Estonian Defense Secretary Kusti Salm, and “the likelihood is pretty high” that Russia will continue increasing its troop numbers.

On a recent visit to Washington, Mr. Salm noted how the West’s predictions about Ukraine have evolved over the course of a year.

“The war is not going to end in April 2022, as everyone was expecting last February, [and] it’s extremely likely that it’s not going to end in April 2023,” he said.

He said Russia’s troop mobilization should not be taken lightly.

“If you’re a nation who can mobilize 300,000 from the streets in a few weeks, and then in five weeks get them into the trenches, this is an effort that I don’t think any Western nation can pull off just from scratch,” Mr. Salm said.

What’s worse, fresh Russian soldiers are arriving on the battlefield in new, digitally designed combat fatigues. “All of them have it,” Mr. Salm said. “It means that [the Russian] military was prepared for these numbers. Mobilized soldiers haven’t shown up in the Second World War uniforms. … They know what they’re doing.”

What remains to be seen is whether the new troops will be more prepared for battle than the initial wave of fighters, who were bogged down, poorly led and disorganized.

‘Just the opening phase’

Others offer less-restrained anniversary assessments.

“This is just the opening phase of what’s going to be a multiyear and perhaps even multi-decade conflict,” said Peter Zeihan, a geopolitical analyst who wrote the 2022 book “The End of the World Is Just Beginning.” For Russia to win, he said, “it’s going to take them [another] year to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses, and then they have to occupy the country, and that’s going to kill a couple of million people.”

Alternatively, Ukrainian forces armed by increasingly powerful NATO weaponry could “completely break the logistical supply chains that allow the Russian troops to even exist, and we’ll have a half a million dead Russians,” Mr. Zeihan recently told “The Joe Rogan Experience” podcast.

Dr. Kenneth Dekleva, a former State Department regional medical officer/psychiatrist who served for five years in Moscow, is a senior fellow with the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. He said it was clear that Mr. Putin believed the invasion would go more smoothly than it has.

Russia’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies likely advised him that Mr. Zelenskyy “was weak and unpopular and would flee or fold quickly,” Dr. Dekleva told former acting CIA Director Michael Morell’s “Intelligence Matters” podcast as the war churned violently in July.

“He was probably [also] told that based on our humiliating withdrawal in Afghanistan, that the Western allies, including President Biden, would not rise to the occasion as they have,” Dr. Dekleva said. “He was likely told that this would be a mop-up operation … over in a couple of days and that most likely he would have installed a puppet regime.”

The Russian president miscalculated.

In a more recent interview with The Times, Dr. Dekleva said Mr. Putin has to grapple with tactical and strategic blunders that have made the invasion of Ukraine look more like a geopolitical train wreck than the “special operation” he claimed his forces were launching.

Rather than recoil and withdraw, Mr. Putin made the perilous decision by late summer to double down. He ordered more targeted missile strikes to cripple Ukraine’s electricity grid and unleashed waves of attacks on civilian targets in hopes of breaking the nation’s will to resist.

Some drew comparisons to Adolf Hitler, but Dr. Dekleva said that portrayal is inaccurate. He said Mr. Putin can be characterized best by three R’s: rational, ruthless and resilient, and in his case, a fourth R — revanchist.”

The ‘juices of revanchism’

Mr. Putin’s regional aggression, his open nostalgia for the superpower days of the Soviet Union and his authoritarian grip on power have long triggered international concern. The Ukraine invasion and his determination to escalate it in the face of NATO resolve have ratcheted fears of what the 70-year-old former KGB agent actually wants and how much he is willing to risk to achieve it.

The answers are tied to the Russian president’s revanchism — a burning desire to recover lost territory, repatriate ethnic Russians “trapped” beyond the country’s diminished borders and retaliate against perceived enemies to secure what he believes is Russia’s rightful place in the world.

Many believe Mr. Putin yearns to restore the Soviet Union to its former glory and that his Ukraine obsession stems from cultural, linguistic, historical and religious ties — and from the fact that the country has vast mineral and agricultural riches and shares a longer border with Russia than any other former Soviet republic.

“Putin saw the breakup of the Soviet Union as one of biggest tragedies of the 20th century, and it’s pretty clear that his goal in this war is to redraw the map as much as possible back to 1991,” Dr. Dekleva said. “His actions are motivated by a desire to disrupt what he sees as an American-led world order.

“Putin has held these views for a very long time,” Dr. Dekleva said. “He told President George W. Bush back in 2007 that Ukraine is not a real nation, that it’s part of Russia.”

More pointedly, Mr. Putin fears being overthrown by an internal pro-democracy uprising. He believes that would be more likely if Ukraine succeeds as a democracy aligned not with Moscow but with the United States, NATO and the European Union.

“His view is that a Westernized Ukraine that is democratic is an existential threat to his regime in Russia,” Dr. Dekleva said.

Others say Mr. Putin’s “revanchism” is more nuanced.

Donald N. Jensen, director for Russia and Europe at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said Mr. Putin’s vision draws from history predating the Bolshevik Revolution, which created the Soviet Union just over a century ago.

“He wants Russia to be a great, imperial power ruled by a czar figure — himself,” Mr. Jensen told The Times as Russian troops rolled into Ukraine last year.

He is bent on trying to build a “multinational Russian empire along authoritarian lines, and that goes back to the era of the czars,” Mr. Jensen said. He pointed to the mid-1500s, when Ivan the Terrible became the first czar of Russia and incorporated much of modern-day Ukraine and Belarus into his Moscow-based state.

Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official and Russia specialist, said Mr. Putin’s revanchist views grew more toxic during the year of COVID-19 isolation.

The decision to invade “didn’t seem completely rational from anybody’s point of view, no matter how much you knew Russia,” Ms. Hill, now with the Brookings Institution, said at a recent discussion hosted by the think tank. “I think an awful lot of the decision-making that Putin made” came from “being stuck at home in the Kremlin over COVID. … He stewed in the kind of juices of revanchism.”

Ms. Hill and longtime Russia analyst Angela Stent said in an analysis of Mr. Putin’s motivations for the journal Foreign Affairs that Mr. Putin has demonstrated in the past 12 months his ability to get his way no matter the obstacles, foreign or domestic.

“Since February 2022, the world has learned that Putin wants to create a new version of the Russian empire based on his Soviet-era preoccupations and his interpretations of history,” they write.

“The launching of the invasion itself has shown that his views of past events can provoke him to cause massive human suffering. It has become clear that there is little other states and actors can do to deter Putin from prosecuting a war if he is determined to do so and that the Russian president will adapt old narratives as well as adopt new ones to suit his purposes.”

Enter Gen. Gerasimov

Mr. Putin’s stubbornness might be what matters most in Ukraine.

“Putin is a very resilient and highly intelligent politician,” Dr. Dekleva said. “He is also very patient and willing to play the long game.”

The Russian president has responded to the invasion’s initial failures and to successive Ukrainian counteroffensives by overhauling the command structure in charge of his “special operation.” He has cycled through a string of commanders to produce the victory he craves.

In January, Mr. Putin tapped Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, to take direct control.

Analysts said the move signaled Mr. Putin’s intention to rely more robustly on the Russian military rather than mercenaries such as those with the Wagner Group, a contracting outfit that has been increasingly active on the battlefield in recent months.

Gen. Gerasimov is a longtime mysterious operator within the Russian military’s brain trust. Early in his career, he led one of Russia’s bloodiest conflicts, the second Chechen war, which pitted separatist rebels against the Kremlin. The Russian state won that war, which remains among Mr. Putin’s signature achievements.

In 2013, Gen. Gerasimov published an article in a Russian journal that has come to be considered a strategic foundation undergirding the Kremlin’s subversion policies around the world. Known in military commands as the “Gerasimov Doctrine of Hybrid Warfare,” the theory encourages a blend of conventional and unconventional warfare and essentially expands military battlefield options infinitely, including into cyberspace.

“In the 21st century, we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace,” the general wrote. “Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template. The very ‘rules of war’ have changed.”

“Putting Gen. Gerasimov in charge was a smart move,” said Dr. Dekleva. He said the 67-year-old general is capable of harnessing the full power of Russia’s security establishment.

“Gerasimov has, I think, more sway than anyone who has headed the campaign thus far. He is also considered one of the authors of hybrid warfare in Russian military tactics,” Dr. Dekleva said. “That means part of the long war in Ukraine may mean a psychological war of attrition by trying to bomb civilian centers while also shifting to cyberwarfare attacks and other hybrid tactics that the Russians have used in the past.

“Under Gerasimov, they’re sort of regrouping, and regrouping around someone of Gerasimov’s stature is disturbing because of Gerasimov’s skills,” he said. “It also sends a message from the Kremlin that when push comes to shove, the Russian traditionalists, the military, will prevail over the war and push aside the role played by mercenaries such as the Wagner Group.”

Mr. Salm, the Estonian defense secretary, offered a similar assessment. 

“If you put the chief of defense on top of the military operation, then the toolbox in his inventory is much larger. He has much more liberty in using aerial assets, much more liberty in using naval assets, strategic missile forces assets, even the internal forces assets,” he said. “What it means is that the assets that this particular operation has are much more.”

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