Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted Thursday that his invasion of Ukraine was “going to plan,” and experts warn that the failure of Russian forces to swiftly achieve victory in the first eight days of the war could mean the worst is yet to come for civilians.
“Russia has a substantial air and missile advantage over Ukraine,” Scott Boston, a senior defense analyst at the nonprofit organization RAND, told Yahoo News. “If Russian leadership, if Vladimir Putin, continues to double down on this and insist that Kyiv is to be taken, there is still a great deal of violence left that Russia can resort to.”
Trying to predict exactly how the war will play out, or whether Putin might be compelled to agree to a ceasefire, is difficult. If history is a guide, however, the Russians may simply try to force Ukraine into submission, no matter how long that ultimately takes.
During a nearly 11-week campaign, from December 1994 through February 1995, Russian forces laid siege to the Chechen city of Grozny. When it was done, estimates put the civilian death toll at between 25,000 and 30,000.
Beginning in 2012, Russian forces aided the Syrian government in a relentless, four-year attack on the Syrian city of Aleppo that left an estimated 31,000 civilians dead.
What’s playing out now in Ukrainian cities, experts say, bears a striking resemblance to those two conflicts. Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, said the images of the bombing of Kharkiv are “like Aleppo all over again.”
Sergiy Orlov, the deputy mayor of Mariupol, said on Wednesday that his city was witnessing a “human catastrophe,” with entire districts of its outlying areas having been leveled by Russian bombs and artillery fire. Medics have not been allowed to retrieve the dead as the Kremlin attempts to bomb towns and cities into submission, he said.
Philip Reeker, the U.S. chargé d’affaires to the U.K., warned that “medieval tactics are certainly what we can expect [from Putin]. That is exactly what President Putin and the Russian military have in mind.”
In terms of military might, Russia has the clear advantage over Ukraine in the conflict. Its tanks alone outnumber those of the Ukrainian forces by a margin of 3 to 1, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. As for military aircraft, Ukraine has 200 attack aircraft, including helicopters and 27 warships, while Russia has at least 1,300 aircraft and 34 warships.
Yet nine days into the war, the level of resistance being mounted by Ukraine has taken many experts by surprise.
“We expected to see certain things, and we didn’t see them,” Boston said. “You’ve seen Ukrainian civilians walking out, blocking the movement of Russian armored vehicles. We see them walking right up to the Russians in some cases.”
Boston said Putin may have simply miscalculated how to execute his assault on Ukraine.
“We saw an initial set of cruise and ballistic missile strikes take place,” Boston said. “But it was not followed up by a large-scale airstrike campaign, like one might expect. Parts of this operation look a lot like how they tried to execute the Crimea operation.”
Unlike in 2014, when Putin swiftly seized the Crimean Peninsula, Ukrainians are now fighting back, keeping Kremlin-led forces out of most major cities. “One crucial difference is that the Ukrainians are shooting back this time,” Boston said. “So it seems to have caught whoever made the plan off guard.”
While people in the West have cheered on the Ukrainian resistance, however, the days and weeks ahead are likely to hold no shortage of tragic moments.
“It’s important to keep in mind that although what has happened so far is awful, and it is a crime, it can get a great deal worse,” Boston said. “And I, frankly, am not totally sure how it will not get a great deal worse.”