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Can Ukraine really win this war?


Today marks three weeks since the Russian military began an invasion of Ukraine, which many predicted would end quickly, given Russia's overwhelming military might.


WEIJIA JIANG: Russians could wipe out the Ukrainian army in under one hour.

MO ROCCA: A vast invading army under the command of an autocrat.

SVYATOSLAV VAKARCHUK: David fighting against Goliath. And we really are David against Goliath.

SUMMERS: But Ukrainian resistance has so far prevented the Russian army from occupying many major cities. So as we enter a fourth week of war, a new question looms - could Ukraine actually win? We put that question to Steven Horrell. He's a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, and he's also a former U.S. naval intelligence officer. Steven, welcome.

STEVEN HORRELL: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: Thank you. All right. So what is the key problem here for Russia? Several fronts of the offensive seem to be stalled for the moment. What are the big issues that you're watching?

HORRELL: I think if you're talking about the battlefield success or lack thereof on the part of Russia, it starts well before the troops stepped across the line of departure and began the invasion. There are systemic problems, the corruption, kleptocracy. There are a lot of bad assumptions, I think, and decision-making up at the national level. I think Putin truly believed the things that he said about the Ukrainian people welcoming them. And they just failed to understand that the Ukrainian armed forces of 2022 are far different from the Ukrainian armed forces of 2014 when they annexed Crimea and began their adventures in eastern Ukraine.

SUMMERS: At this point in the war, could Russia somehow fail? And what might defeat look like for Russia if that were to happen?

HORRELL: The first part is easier and it's an easy answer of yes, Russia could certainly fail. So Russia could lose in the sense of failing to achieve the strategic objectives, and Russia could lose on the battlefield in the sense of being defeated. What we're seeing now is what was planned - again, another bad assumption that they thought it would be quick and very easy and over within a few days. And we're now seeing that they don't have the logistics to sustain. There's a lot of thinking - you know, this is a question of 10 days to two weeks more now that Ukraine's held out so far that the Russian logistics, that they're reaching their culminating point, and they're going to no longer be able to maintain their offensive.

SUMMERS: And that raises a different question for me, right? I wonder, as you think about this, is Russia losing the same as Ukraine winning?

HORRELL: And that's the harder question. And what does the end look like after the shooting is done, some cease-fire, some agreement has been reached? What does that look like? They're hoping for these quick military success to decapitate the Zelenskyy administration in Kyiv and install a more pliant puppet in Kyiv. And that is almost zero chance of occurring now. But for Ukraine, you would define victory as the complete expulsion of the Russian invaders, not just this recent invasion but to get the borders back to 2014 before Crimea was illegally annexed. So anything where there still is a division, still is Russian control of Ukrainian territory, won't look like a complete victory for Ukraine either. And that's where it's challenging.

SUMMERS: I wonder if you could sketch out for us what a stalemate might look like here, an incomplete victory for Ukraine.

HORRELL: That's one of the discussions is a stalemate along the lines of Russian-held Crimea, the Russian-led separatist-held areas in eastern Ukraine. And you draw up the lines there, potentially even have international sort of peacekeepers and you cause that stalemate. So in one sense, that's a success for Russia. It gets an anchor dragging Ukraine down, both in terms of economic advancement and full realization of their national potential. But also that's the sort of thing that keeps a country out of the EU and out of NATO. At this point, though, with the success we've seen in three weeks, is that even an acceptable terms for Ukraine? And I think it may not be.

SUMMERS: Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot afford to lose this war. When might he consider giving up?

HORRELL: That is a challenging question and, again, because I think that statement is - has a lot of accuracy to it. He cannot afford to lose this war. Just as important in all Russian decision-making has been to maintain the power of those in power. Anything less than complete victory will look like a loss for Putin. And anything that looks like a loss in Ukraine could lead to a more significant loss in Moscow and in the Kremlin.

SUMMERS: Steven Horrell, senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and a former U.S. naval intelligence officer, thanks so much for being with us.

HORRELL: You're very welcome. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Linah Mohammad