Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other NATO leaders are set to gather for an extraordinary meeting in Brussels on Thursday as experts warn that the war in Ukraine is likely to get more bloody as it enters a new and decisive phase.
The meeting will take place precisely one month after Russia invaded its neighbor seeking to overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Russia’s military campaign has stalled without having seized the Ukrainian capital Kyiv or other major cities. Many military analysts say Moscow was counting on a swift victory and no longer has the troops and the fresh equipment it would need to make major gains now.
Russia’s military strategy is evolving for a longer, deadlocked conflict and will focus on “holding civilians and whole cities hostage” to force the Ukrainian government to capitulate, said Matthew Schmidt, an associate professor and national security expert at the University of New Haven in Connecticut .
Oleksandr Danylyuk, Ukraine’s former national security chief, agreed with that assessment and said Moscow’s strategy going forward will be an attempt to grind Ukraine’s cities and people into dust.
“Russians realize that they had no chances to win this war by using the original strategy and they changed it to … shelling Ukrainian, bombing Ukrainian cities and killing … as many innocent civilians as possible,” Danylyuk said, speaking to CBC News from Kyiv.
“[The] Russians miscalculated [the] Ukrainian spirit. They killed so many Ukrainian civilians. They ruined our beautiful cities. Russia can destroy Ukraine but it will never win this war.”
Trudeau spoke by phone with Zelensky about the mounting civilian death toll before leaving for Europe on Tuesday.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights estimated earlier this week that 902 civilians have been killed and another 1,459 have been wounded so far due to the war.
Western intelligence agencies have started to warn that Russia’s ally Belarus is preparing to enter the war with its troops. US President Joe Biden has signaled that Moscow could escalate the conflict by using chemical weapons.
Danylyuk said both scenarios are very likely. He estimated Belarus is “days away” from taking military action to support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s faltering invasion.
“Putin will one day use chemical weapons or nukes,” said Danylyuk. “There is no other way [to win]. And we are not going to surrender because of that perspective.”
NATO, led by the United States, has said it will not put troops on the ground in Ukraine but will continue to help arm Zelensky’s government.
Schmidt said the challenge for NATO leaders over the next few days is to come up with new and innovative ways to counter Russia’s strategy of slaughtering civilians.
It would be risky but possible, he said, for allies to establish a “maritime humanitarian corridor” into besieged Mariupol — the southern port city where tens of thousands of civilians are trapped under constant bombardment without power and water.
Schmidt said Western forces could go in to evacuate civilians after issuing a notice that they will not involve themselves in the conflict directly, or fire their weapons unless they are fired upon. He said it would be a calculated risk, made possible by the weakened state of Putin’s military.
“[Putin] now knows that his military is pretty damn incompetent, even against the Ukrainians. And so there’s a risk, you know,” Schmidt said. “We’re likely to be able to pull off our threat.”
In an interview with CBC News earlier this week, NATO Sec. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg once again ruled out the possibility of putting NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine.
Schmidt said the allies will still find it hard to stand by and witness so much suffering.
Danylyuk said his country needs more and better weapons and NATO leaders need to find new ways to increase the financial pressure on Russia and support the Ukrainian economy.
“We need weapons and we need money,” he said. “[There’s a need] to support Ukraine financially, because it’s not only a military problem, but also a huge problem for [the] Ukrainian economy …
“We will be efficient in destroying Russian troops anyhow.”