Major military operations are often secretive. But Ukraine’s plans to fight Russia have been a matter of public debate for months. This has created different expectations.
“In the best situation, the Ukrainians would have freed up a lot of space, and maybe even pushed the Russians to the line of Feb. 23 last year before the start of a major attack on Russia. This would have been very difficult for Moscow,” he said. Steven Pifer, former US ambassador to Ukraine who is now at the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation
This would reverse Russia’s biggest military success of the past year, creating a land bridge connecting Russian forces in eastern Ukraine – the Donbas region – with Russian forces in the south – in Crimea.
But Pifer admits that this is a good thing.
“Perhaps the best hope is that the Ukrainian people will take the lead, which can be seen in the West as proof that Ukraine has a chance to win,” he added.
The US and other NATO countries are sending Ukraine tanks, drones and artillery – giving them more firepower than ever – in preparation for this.
The West also recently pledged to fulfill Ukraine’s long-standing request for F-16 fighter jets, although the Ukrainian military still has to learn to fly and maintain these American planes, a process that is expected to take several months.
In the meantime, this prolonged arrest of Ukraine has given Russia time to strengthen the vulnerable areas in the south and east, where Ukraine is likely to attack.
Satellite images show the Russians digging new trenches to protect Ukraine’s access to Crimea, and Russia is said to have sent additional troops to the region.
When will the anger begin?
In all the public discussions about this evil, Ukraine has hidden the time it plans to start the project quickly. Political and military leaders of Ukraine are repeatedly asked this question, and they have a pat answer: “soon.”
Some analysts say the initial stages of the threat may already be, meaning surprise, small-scale attacks inside Russia.
This includes the drones that struck the Kremlin in Moscow earlier this month, causing only minor damage to the building’s roof, but bringing joy to the Russian public.
Ukraine has deliberately not been known about attacks inside Russia, neither confirming nor denying involvement. But there is almost universal belief that Ukraine is responsible, and this is a way to prevent Russia from becoming a threat before it happens.
Michael Kofman, who is at the Center for Naval Analyses, a think tank supported by the US government, believes that the invasion of Ukraine will succeed. But he said it would be more difficult than the last fall that drove Russian troops out of many areas in the northeast and south.
“It may require multiple offensives and may be done over a period of months instead of days or weeks,” Kofman said.
“I think that the Russian army should be seen to be fighting hard in this operation. Ukraine should show in this part of the war that it is still capable of crossing the Russian lines,” he added.
The invasion of Ukraine comes with serious risks. Angela Stent at Georgetown University said that Ukraine needs to advance in the military to remain strong in the political and military support it receives from the West.
“If they don’t show it very well, it’s going to be difficult to explain all the tools,” Stent said. “I think Ukraine will say, if they restore part of it, ‘Look, we’re making progress. It’s very difficult. We still need equipment, money, and please send us more.’
Kofman also pointed out that Ukraine and its Western allies may have different definitions of success.
“The honest answer is, I guess we’ll see when we see,” he said. “And to some extent it will be interpreted directly by the main heads in Europe and among Ukraine’s Western partners.”
Disappointments that can be great, but it is not possible to end the war
These experts agree on one important point. Regardless of how this destruction of Ukraine happens, they do not think it will end the war.
He sees Russian leader Vladimir Putin as playing the long game, believing he can weaken the Ukrainian military and reduce the West’s willingness to help.
“Russia has three times the population of Ukraine, so Russians still have hundreds of thousands of young men who can be drafted,” Stent said.
“Ukraine does not have many young men to send to the front. Russia can continue to send people to the war longer than Ukraine,” he added.
Steven Pifer, meanwhile, was a longtime ambassador. But he doesn’t think this is the right time to talk about peace.
“I believe that at some point there will be talks on the war between Kyiv and Moscow, but not now and not when the Russians have not shown anything that they are willing,” he said.
“You will see people saying, ‘Well, it’s time to encourage Ukrainians to talk. I don’t agree with that,'” he added. “I worry about people who are planning to start negotiations about the part of Ukraine that should be given to Russia, even though it is not their part to give.”
Ukraine has repeatedly shocked the world at war, Pifer said. Be prepared, he added, to be surprised again.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent for NPR. Follow him @gregmyre1.