[Reader note: this post launched just before 7:00 EST but was not complete because reasons. Please come back at 8:00, or you can start to speculate in comments and see if you beat me to the punch time-wise!]
Russia embarked on a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, catching just about everyone by surprise.1 Despite Western politicians and the press attempting to depict Russia as going slowly and/or doing poorly, it’s already clear a mere week in Russia will prevail. Russia had only deployed a small portion of its available forces. It appears to have been taking more casualties to reduce civilian deaths. It has left the power, the Internet, and even the cell phone system up even though that helped the Ukrainian army, presumably to reduce civilian panic and hardship. So far, it has also avoided civilian targets and infrastructure (“avoided” does not mean “completely spared”; something that surgical isn’t feasible).
Russia still has to subdue important population centers, such as Kiev, Mariupol, Odessa. While the exact conditions on the ground are disputed, Russia appears to have encircled or at least terminally tied down the bulk of the Ukrainian army in Donbass, making it impossible to relieve Kiev. Depending on who you trust, Kiev is largely or entirely encircled. Ditto Mariupol. Russia is reported to be staging an amphibious-based assault on Odessa.
We are now hitting the point where Putin will be forced to make tradeoffs among his stated aims, and those will play a significant role in whether Russia can win the peace. Remember Russia does not want to have to occupy or control Ukraine; that’s a big motivator in trying to leave it as intact as possible. The less that is broken in a war, the more feasible it is to restore a reasonable approximation of status quo ante from the perspective of ordinary people. The US of course hopes for the reverse: for Russia to become bogged down militarily, such as not being able to leave because there are enough nasty insurgents to be able to pose a threat to Russia.
Recall Putin’s stated aims:
1 Despite the Western press crying “wolf” twice about date-certain Russian invasion, the fact that the Russians established control of airspace quickly, knocked out the military’s communications infrastructure, and even moved rapidly to secure Chernobyl, among other things, says that even though the West gave all the appearances of expecting a serious attack, they managed not to prepare adequately for it. Or to put it more cynically, the US may not have cared if the Ukrainians did badly in the face of a full bore assault. They may have assumed the Russians would get mired either during the campaign or its aftermath.