Six months into the Russia-Ukraine war, the entire world is losing. A look at where we go from here.
Putin and Russia "will not just go away," one expert says. But Zelenskyy, NATO and the U.S. aren't going away either.
Ukraine is on life support, Russian troops are taking massive casualties, and the rest of the world is saddled with severe food shortages, spiraling inflation, the risk of a nuclear disaster and other hardships fueled by a savage war that shows no sign of soon ending.
Russia's callous invasion of Ukraine six months ago ignited a conflict the entire world appears to be losing.
The Kremlin can claim modest gains on the ground, but at least three top generals have been replaced in the past month as the Russian military struggles to make meaningful progress toward President Vladimir Putin's belligerent ambitions.
“His overall objective was to overrun the entire country, to engage in regime change in Kyiv, to snuff out Ukraine as an independent sovereign and independent nation,” Colin Kahl, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, said at a recent briefing. “None of that has happened.”
And Putin, who included NATO expansion concerns on his list of reasons for the invasion, has likely driven neighbors Finland and Sweden to join the military alliance.
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In Ukraine, morale remains remarkably high, says Dale Buckner, a retired U.S. Army colonel and CEO of the international security firm Global Guardian. In Kyiv and the surrounding cities, the majority of the population believe they are winning tactically and strategically, says Buckner, whose firm supports a team of intelligence analysts in Ukraine.
Buckner says President Volodymyr Zelenskyy won over his nation by staying in the country when he could have easily fled.
"When he used the mantra, 'I don’t need a ride, I need ammunition,' on a global platform, he won over parts of the Ukrainian population that had not previously supported him," Buckner told USA TODAY.
Putin claims to be fighting for the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. But Buckner says most Russian nationals who have lived in Ukraine for an extended period of time do not support the invasion. All they see is their homes, businesses, schools, workplaces and cities being destroyed.
"The Russian forces are not being viewed as liberators, or fellow countrymen coming to their rescue," Buckner said, "but as aggressors destroying everything in their path."
Zelenskyy has unabashedly begged the West for more and better weaponry, and the equipment that has begun rolling in is providing a ray of hope. Ukrainian forces using U.S.-supplied precision artillery in recent weeks severely damaged bridges vital to the Russian military's supply lines in occupied Kherson, a primary target for Ukraine's counterattack plans in the south.
"Successful missile strikes on bridges over the Dnipro River by #UAarmy create an impossible dilemma for russian occupiers in #Kherson," the Ukrainian Defense Ministry tweeted. "Retreat or be annihilated by #UAarmy. The choice is theirs."
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What victory might look like for Ukraine
The British Defense Ministry publishes upbeat daily war assessments that routinely downplay Russia's military efforts. Common phrases include "setbacks," "struggling," "vulnerable" and "degraded." Every night, Zelenskyy rallies his nation with inspiring addresses highlighting incremental successes and pledging to drive out the Russian invaders.
"Our country's position remains what it always has been – we will give up nothing of what is ours," Zelenskyy says.
Still, Ukraine's much-anticipated offensive aimed at retaking some of the occupied territory has thus far gained little traction in the face of withering shelling from Russian troops. And Russian forces continue their slow but steady march through Ukraine's industrial Donbas region in the east, part of a connective tissue of land between Russia and Crimea, a jewel Russia took by force and annexed eight years ago.
Buckner, whose firm has helped evacuate more than 10,000 Ukrainians, says Zelenskyy's government must face the realities on the ground. Despite Zelenskyy’s stated goal, Buckner said he does not believe the Ukrainians can win back eastern cities.
"The Russians will 'own' the Donbas just like they 'own' Crimea today," Buckner told USA TODAY. "Ultimately, we believe the borders will be redrawn with Russia taking the Donbas to Crimea as their territory."
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What victory might look like for Russia
Russian leaders have waffled on their goals. Putin pledged to "denazify" a country whose democratically elected president is Jewish and to neutralize a perceived NATO encroachment. The invasion began Feb. 24 with a spirited push to Kyiv that soon bogged down.
That led the Kremlin to announce that its primary goal was to "liberate" the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed, self-proclaimed republics have been combating Ukraine troops since 2014.
In recent weeks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to expand those “geographical goals” to include not only the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in the Donbas, but a number of other regions. And regime change was not taken off the table.
“We will certainly help the Ukrainian people to get rid of the regime, which is absolutely anti-people and anti-historical,” Lavrov said.
Jeffrey Levine is a former career foreign service officer who served multiple tours in eastern Europe and as U.S. ambassador to Estonia – like Ukraine a former Soviet republic sharing a border with Russia and precariously balancing two cultures. Levine says Putin has frequently tried to exploit the tensions between Russians living in neighboring countries and the majority population.
Ukraine, by most measures the poorest nation in Europe before the war began, could be perceived as a soft target. And there has been substantial tension for years between Ukrainians leaning toward Putin's Russia and those more attracted to a Western orientation that includes membership in NATO and the European Union.
"He has been least successful in this when the Russian populations are close enough to see life inside of Putin’s Russia and personally compare it to their own countries," he said.
Levine says Russia's military superiority may not be sufficient to occupy Ukraine, a nation of more than 40 million people, for very long. Levine says a reliable weapons flow from the West coupled with continuous sanctions against Russia could make a “frozen conflict” look good to Putin.
A frozen conflict allows Putin to maintain the threat of renewed aggression while preventing Ukraine from functioning as a normal country.
"A useful tool for a delusional, lying autocrat like Putin is his ability to create any reality he wants,' Levine told USA TODAY. "He can simply declare victory and go home."
When Putin has had enough, he may start looking for some kind of negotiated settlement, Levine said. And it should be up to Ukraine to determine what deal it can accept to end hostilities, he says, echoing the U.S. position.
"Russia’s dated 'sphere of influence' world view has been rejected internationally and has no place in the 21st century," Levine said.
But while the fighting continues, Russia looks to consolidate its gains by annexing territories it occupies. The Russian-appointed leader of Ukraine's Zaporozhye region west of the Donbas has ordered a referendum on "reunification" with Russia that could take place as soon as next month. Russian puppet governments are making similar plans elsewhere in Ukraine.
"Any Russia-orchestrated referenda will not be free and fair," a senior State Department official said at a recent background briefing. "Any purported annexation is illegal, illegitimate, and, frankly, ridiculous."
Zelenskyy pledged that such "pseudo-referendums" will eliminate any chance of negotiations "the Russian side will clearly need at some point."
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Civilians, children pay a steep price
The rhetoric heats up and the casualties mount. Neither side releases details, but both militaries are taking massive losses. Russia has suffered as many as 80,000 dead and wounded, the Pentagon's Kahl said recently. This for territorial gains that in recent weeks can be measured in a few kilometers in the southern and eastern regions of the battle-scarred nation.
"Over the last 30 days, Russia’s assault toward the town of Bakhmut has been its most successful axis in the Donbas," the British Defense Ministry said in a recent assessment. "However, Russia has only managed to advance about 10km during this time."
Zelenskyy has estimated that as many as 100-200 Ukraine soldiers were dying a day. Additionally, thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed or wounded by the unrelenting assault of Russian bombing on Ukraine's cities, the government says. Ukraine's national prosecutor's office has estimated that more than 360 children have been killed and more than 700 wounded.
More than 5 million Ukrainians have fled the country, and many more have fled homes in targeted regions. Feeding and providing shelter for families that stay has become a major concern, and the U.N. is trying to help.
UNICEF says its humanitarian cash assistance program has distributed $125 million, reaching 120,000 households and more than 350,000 children in Ukraine. About 35,000 of those children have disabilities.
Families that qualify for the program get an unconditional cash grant.
“No one is in a better position to decide how to get the most out of this support than a parent or guardian,” said Murat Sahin, UNICEF representative in Ukraine.
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As the global impact lingers, what will the coming months bring?
The collateral damage is global. Ukraine serves as a breadbasket for much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but 20 million tons of grain have been trapped in Ukrainian silos for months because of a tight Russian blockade. Grain shipments have only recently begun a slow emergence from Ukraine's ports.
Hundreds of millions of people are at risk of “hunger and destitution” because of resulting food shortages, U.N.’s secretary-general António Guterres has warned. Prices have risen sharply, adding to the humanitarian crisis.
Meanwhile, fighting around a Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant – Europe's largest – has put a swath of the continent at risk of a nuclear tragedy.
Europe's sanctions on Russian energy, aimed at curtailing Russia's will to fight, has left the continent in a precarious position as energy costs around the globe teeter near historic levels and northern Europe frets over how homes will be heated this winter if – or when – Russia turns off the natural gas tap.
Buckner says Ukrainians know the winter will be difficult, but they also know how to survive in arduous conditions and will be prepared. They are, however, worried that Putin could successfully curb Western Europe’s support of Ukraine by cutting off the energy supply that heats so many European homes.
Winter will also increase headaches for Russian forces.
"The 'home team' of Ukraine has the advantage as their supply chains are much shorter," Buckner said. "Less risk of disruption to support their troops and logistical requirements."
Buckner acknowledges that Putin and Russia "will not just go away." But Zelenskyy, NATO and the U.S. aren't going away either. Neither side will likely achieve its desired result, but the conflict is unsustainable for Russia in its current form versus Ukraine with its Western backing.
"The definition of success for Ukraine is an end to the war, the redrawing of its borders, and a return to a peace-time economy with the chance of becoming a NATO member in the future," Buckner said.