‘Neither side can win here’

A view of destroyed buildings and vehicles after Russian attacks on a shopping center in Kiev, Ukraine on March 21, 2022. 8 people are reported to have been killed in the Russian attack on the shopping center.

Emin Sansar | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

BRUSSELS – Russia’s nearly month-long war in Ukraine is on the brink of a stalemate, a senior NATO intelligence official said Monday, with Ukrainian forces preventing Russia from making progress, but Russian President Vladimir Putin shows no willingness to to retreat.

“If we’re not in a stalemate, we’re quickly approaching one,” said the NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military assessments. “The reality is that neither side is superior to the other.”

Belarus, a close Russian ally, may soon attack Ukraine itself and is preparing to allow Russia to potentially place nuclear weapons on Belarusian soil, the official said. Belarus has already authorized the Russian military to use its territory to invade Ukraine.

The ominous assessment comes as President Joe Biden and world leaders prepare for a major NATO summit on Thursday here in Belgium and other high-level gatherings focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The US and NATO allies have been bolstered by Ukraine’s surprisingly strong resistance and Russia’s mediocre military performance. But Western leaders have also warned that Putin does not appear serious about diplomatic negotiations to end the war, predicting a protracted conflict with devastating consequences for Ukrainian civilians.

The NATO official said that, despite not making significant progress in the past two weeks, Putin appears to be dug in and unwilling to admit his failure, likely ruling out the possibility of relapsing.

Soldiers of pro-Russian forces are seen atop a tank during the Ukraine-Russia conflict on the outskirts of the besieged southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, March 20, 2022.

Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters

The Ukrainians have also “made it very clear that they will not give up,” the official said, adding that Russia would likely find it very difficult to maintain control over the territory it has conquered in the face of “what is likely to be an ongoing and significant Ukrainian uprising.”

“So what happens if you bang these two forces against each other in this way? The loss of life and damage will be quite serious,” the NATO official said. ‚ÄúNeither side can win here. Neither side will capitulate.’

It remains unclear to NATO whether Putin plans to pursue a “maximalist” strategy to conquer all or most of Ukraine, the official said, but claimed Russia had clearly expanded its targets in recent days, including by locations in western Ukraine that had remained largely untouched in the early days of the war.

Amid Russia’s likely frustration at its meager battlefield gains, Russian forces have also moved to use less discriminatory weapons that cause more destruction with little ability to avoid civilian casualties.

“The problem with a stalemate is that it is a long and drawn-out fight,” the NATO official said. “Will they (the Russians) realize they can’t win? Maybe, but that takes a certain amount of rationality and a willingness to admit you didn’t win, which there’s no evidence for at the moment.”

Last month voters in Belarus approved a referendum to give up the country’s non-nuclear status, in what was widely seen as a political precursor to allow Russia to base nuclear weapons in the country, which was in the process of the north borders Ukraine. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has emerged as Putin’s closest ally in the war, holding high-profile meetings with the Russian leader and allowing his country to be used as a Russian military training ground.

Now NATO is concerned that Belarusian troops will join the fray, the official said.

“The Belarusian government is preparing the environment to justify a Belarusian offensive against Ukraine and the imminent deployment of Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus,” the NATO intelligence official said.

Still, the official warned that placing nuclear weapons in Belarus was not a foregone conclusion.

“I’m not going to tell you they’re going to put nuclear weapons there tomorrow,” the official added. “What I mean is that they have taken political steps to now be able to receive nuclear weapons if such a decision is made.”

While Belarus has allowed the Russian military to use its territory to conduct ground and air operations, including air strikes, air operations and strikes, NATO has not yet seen any hard evidence that Belarusian forces participated directly in the warfare in Ukraine, said the official.

“Anything they are at the moment is complicit,” the official said.

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