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Russia's war in Ukraine could become a 'frozen conflict,' analysts say

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

As the Russian and Ukrainian armies battle over the country's east and south, it's worth thinking about where this war is headed and how it might end. Analysts across Europe fear the war could become what's called a frozen conflict, where Russia retains some Ukrainian territory and there is no lasting peace. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Kyiv.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Russia's current offensive in eastern Ukraine is widely seen as a salvage operation - President Vladimir Putin's attempt to dig himself out of a series of disastrous decisions. Oleg Ignatov covers Russia for the International Crisis Group and until recently was based in Moscow.

OLEG IGNATOV: Their plan to transform Ukraine into a pro-Russian state failed. They didn't occupy Ukraine. They don't have a pro-Russian government in Kyiv.

LANGFITT: Alexandru Flenchea, former deputy foreign minister in neighboring Moldova, says the war now seems pretty pointless.

ALEXANDRU FLENCHEA: To be quite honest, I think for most people outside Russia, the ongoing war does not make any sense politically, militarily or economically. I think it is only Putin's ambition that keeps driving this war.

LANGFITT: Ignatov says Putin is focused on a land grab largely designed to sell the invasion as a success back home.

IGNATOV: The goal of Russia right now is to control as more territories as it can and maybe to annex these territories in future because for Russian citizens, it will look like a victory.

LANGFITT: As Russia takes more terrain, it's trying to cement its control over cities, towns and villages. For instance, in the southern port city of Kherson, the military has installed a pro-Russian government, replaced Ukrainian TV channels with Russian ones. And in another city to the east, they even put up a statue of Vladimir Lenin, which had been taken down eight years earlier.

SIMON SCHLEGEL: They will appoint city authorities. They will likely hold some kind of referendum either to integrate into Russian Federation or into proxy states.

LANGFITT: Simon Schlegel is a senior analyst on Ukraine for the International Crisis Group.

SCHLEGEL: So these territories, they would probably not be then willing to negotiate about.

LANGFITT: In other words, Russia doesn't see these regions as bargaining chips, but intends to keep them, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says he can't accept. He insists there will be no peace until Russian troops pull back to their pre-invasion positions. Speaking through an interpreter, this is how he put it last week in a talk with Chatham House, the London think tank.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) First of all, I would like us to understand that I was elected by the people of Ukraine as president of Ukraine, not as president of a mini Ukraine.

LANGFITT: Simon Schlegel says no Ukrainian politician could afford to give up land after the military's impressive performance and the suffering of the Ukrainian people.

SCHLEGEL: That would definitely lead to a very heavy political upheaval. That would be very dangerous domestically for any Ukrainian government.

LANGFITT: And analysts here say, why should they? Olexiy Haran is a professor of comparative politics at University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

OLEXIY HARAN: Ukraine will be on upward trend, and Russia is on downward trend because Russia made so serious geopolitical mistake. Definitely we are not going to compromise and follow crazy Putin's ideas about recognition of the annexation of Crimea and the so-called puppet republics.

LANGFITT: Most wars end at the negotiating table. Early attempts to resolve this conflict have fallen apart, and any new talks seem far off. Putin's continued vilification of the Ukrainians isn't helping. This is how he described them this week in a speech celebrating the Soviet victory in World War II.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) We are dealing with Nazis, and we had to do something about it.

LANGFITT: Nick Reynolds researches land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. He says Putin's demonization of the Ukrainians leaves him little political room to maneuver.

NICK REYNOLDS: The rhetoric will make it very, very difficult for the Russians to open up negotiations with Ukraine, having sort of basically said that, you know, Ukrainian independence is completely unacceptable and that they're akin to Nazi Germany. The Russian government is closing off its options. It's closing off what options will be domestically acceptable.

LANGFITT: Which Oleg Ignatov, of the International Crisis Group, says leaves the two countries at an impasse.

IGNATOV: They don't know how to stop this war right now because both sides still hope that they can win this war. We'll have some kind of solution - for example, a ceasefire, or maybe, maybe a military treaty, but I'm not optimistic about that. I believe that everything depends on what is happening on the ground.

LANGFITT: Nick Reynolds says Russia could try to freeze the conflict, hold territory and enter long, drawn-out negotiations. Ukraine could respond with an insurgency.

REYNOLDS: We could see something more like, you know, in elements of Afghanistan in the 1980s, perhaps, you know, where Russian military controls cities, but doesn't control the countryside in the areas which it's trying to hold. It could become very, very ugly.

LANGFITT: Colonel Roman Kostenko, who oversees a reconnaissance unit on the southern front out of Mykolaiv, says Ukraine needs a lot more weapons to push Russia back to pre-invasion positions. As we chatted in front of the city's municipal building, which has been split in half by a Russian missile, Kostenko said Ukraine needs more long-range artillery and missiles.

ROMAN KOSTENKO: (Through interpreter) If we will have enough weapons and we can prepare, then it might take months. If we understand that our partners will only provide us with the type of weapons that can deter Russia instead of attacking, it could take years. To be able for us to attack, we need way more weapons.

LANGFITT: Although the Russians have performed poorly on the battlefield so far, Nick Reynolds says it would be a mistake to count them out. That's because, he says, Russia's army still has a lot of combat power and remains very dangerous.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "START SHOOTIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.