Ukraine is still standing.
That may be a surprise to Russia as its invasion grinds toward a third destructive week. Not only has it seemingly underestimated its neighbor’s resolve, but now its ability to wage — let alone win — a prolonged conflict has come into question.
Between the stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, Russia’s early military woes and the expansive penalties that have roiled Moscow’s economy, could President Vladimir Putin look for an early offramp to end the war?
Ukrainian officials and Russia experts did not express much optimism.
“Maybe there’s more happening there than meets the eye, but the Kremlin has gone all in on this invasion — a major war of a kind Russia has not fought since 1945,” said Michael Kimmage, who joined the State Department in 2014 to focus on Ukraine-Russia issues and is now chair of the history department at the Catholic University of America.
“Putin has bet his presidency on this venture, so either he will get major concessions from the Ukrainians or just keep on fighting,” Kimmage said.
Experts said Putin entered the conflict with some very clear political goals: push back against NATO, topple the Ukrainian government and install a new regime more sympathetic to the Kremlin.
To do that, Russia hoped to move in with a swift military victory before the West could react. Now that it has become a protracted fight, Moscow appears to be retooling its efforts: The quick-moving ground offensive is turning into a devastating aerial assault.
“It is now an air war,” said Oleksandr Danylyuk, the former secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council who is now helping organize the territorial defense on the front lines in Kyiv.
“If they wanted to take over Ukraine, they know now they cannot manage it,” he added over the phone. “When I look at their behavior, they don’t care about this at all. They cannot occupy this country, so now they will try to destroy it.”
Still, as the war has quickly shifted, so have some of Moscow’s public demands.
On Monday, Russia provided Ukraine with a pared-back version of the goals it had outlined earlier — though experts doubt there’s much room to budge.
Rather than requiring Ukraine’s full demilitarization and pushing NATO to remove all deployments east of where the alliance stood in 1997, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Reuters the war could end “in a moment” if Kyiv agreed to four conditions.
Ukraine would have to end all military action, write into its constitution that it would not join NATO or the European Union, officially recognize annexed Crimea as Russian territory and accept the independence of two breakaway eastern regions.
“These goals Mr. Putin has presented are the ones that are maybe the lowest common denominator of what they would agree to,” Mathieu Boulegue, a specialist in Eurasian security and defense at the London think tank Chatham House, said.
“All of this has been there for a long time, but this is the first time we see them on paper,” Boulegue said. “The question is where do we go from here? How can they turn what they’re doing now into a military victory that would ensure them and guarantee them the ability to carry forth with their political strategic ambitions?”
Russian forces are not occupying much territory in Ukraine, with the focus instead apparently aimed at encircling or leveling cities. Kherson, Mariupol, Kharkiv and Mykolaiv have seen intense shelling, with the destruction only growing as the war continues. Thus far it seems to have only served to embolden Ukrainian resistance, rather than convince it to give in.
‘This could go on for some time’
While Russia’s demands are high, so is Ukraine’s resolve to oppose them and any deal short of Russia leaving the country fully independent and free to make its own choices.
“We make sacrifices every day now,” Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, said over the phone when asked whether his country would accept any of Russia’s demands.
“Thousands of our people are wounded. Hundreds of our people are killed,” he said. “We don’t have the ability to stand back and be neutral.”
“Ukraine is now the frontier of democracy, of Western values,” he added.
NBC News has not verified the number of people killed.
Ukraine accepting Russian terms could further embolden Putin’s regime and cause future blowback for democracies and sovereign nations across the world, experts said, with neighboring countries already fearing they might be the next target of Russian aggression.
The West itself, Boulegue said, should “make damn sure that they [Ukraine] don’t sacrifice on anything.”
A State Department spokesperson said the United States would not push Ukraine to make concessions to end the conflict and that “we have consistently said that sovereign nations have the right to choose their own alliances and make their own decisions about their security.”
“The challenge is this,” the spokesperson said, “Putin continues to press this aggression, and that is why we are concerned this could go on for some time.”
The length of time Russia can afford, between its military and its economic resources, is unclear. But it is a certainty that the country is taking on a huge toll to commit to the conflict.
Each day the number of young Russian men who will never return home grows, with the U.S. putting the total between 2,000 and 4,000 Russian soldiers killed so far — possibly more than the number of Americans killed in the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
As the cost mounts for the Kremlin, can it maintain an expensive fight against Ukrainian resistance for the long term?
“For Putin, I think it’s very difficult to withdraw with nothing — from a regime survival perspective — otherwise he would be admitting defeat,” said Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist who studies Russian politics and its armed forces at the military think tank CNA. “My suspicion and my fear is that what we’ll see is the use of more indiscriminate violence to make the Ukrainians decide that the losses aren’t worth it.”
It could also prove difficult for Ukraine and Russia to hammer out an agreement because there is little to no trust between the two sides, particularly if Putin is involved, Ukrainian officials said.
The most recent round of negotiations did not make much progress, and efforts to evacuate civilians from besieged cities have been repeatedly marred by unceasing Russian attacks.
Danylyuk helped women and children evacuate through occupied territory north of Kyiv on Monday and said they saw heavy shelling constantly.
“Putin’s intentions are absolutely clear,” Danylyuk said. “If we give him a finger, he will bite the whole hand. There can only be one negotiation: They withdraw from Ukraine and pay us reparations. That’s it.”
All of these elements have combined to create a conflict from which neither side looks set to retreat, though both may feel they have their backs to the wall without an exit.
“At this stage, diplomacy is doomed to fail,” Boulegue said.
“I don’t see a way out right now,” Boulegue said. “This is going to be a war of attrition, a very long conflict that will leave Ukraine and European security scarred for decades.”