Cathedral bells rang out across Europe on Thursday in a gesture of solidarity with Ukraine and a prayer for peace, marking one week of war.
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Russian forces continued to pummel Ukrainian civilian centers. Russian troops have reportedly nearly captured two strategic cities on the Black Sea coast: Kherson and Mariupol. In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on Thursday evening (local time).
"The special military operation is going by the book," Putin said.
He said Russia's objectives are being met. Putin also said that Russia was fighting to demilitarize Ukraine. He called it an anti-Russian state that was created by the West.
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Retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who worked in the White House as the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, joined The World's host Carol Hills to discuss the current outlook and specific military strategies used by both Ukraine and Russia.
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Carol Hills: Tell us about the Russian offensive along the Black Sea, including encircling the critical city of Mariupol. How strategically significant is this?
Alexander Vindman: It's pretty significant for at least one of their lower-level objectives, which is this idea of building a land bridge from the Russian territory across the Crimea. Crimea has been annexed as Russian territory and logistics are really tough to get in there. They've got one rail and road bridge across the Kerch Strait, so they're attempting to build this land bridge. But they still have a hurdle of seizing Mariupol, which is encircled — but putting up a valiant fight.
What impact does it have on northern cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv? If Russia controls the southern ports?
It would undermine trade. It would make it easier on Crimea, but it wouldn't really have a strategic impact on Kyiv. What's going on now is that there are ships off the coast of the largest port city of Odessa. If the Russians are successful in Odessa, and they secure the entire south of the country, it would make Ukraine a landlocked country.
What is your overall assessment of how Russia has conducted this war thus far?
Very poorly. When countries conduct these large-scale offensives, they're derived from guidance from the political leadership, and the political leadership couched this as a "cakewalk," and they couched it as a "peacekeeping operation" where they would be welcomed in with open arms. In fact, the Ukrainians have put up stiff resistance and destroyed significant portions of the Russian armed forces. I'm thinking through this idea that Russians came in with the objective of demilitarizing Ukraine, but the Russians may very well leave as the demilitarized country. Because Russia has a lot of armed forces, they have a lot more forces to push in. But in terms of front-line combat units, the fighting forces, they assembled about 70% of their entire national ground force on the border of Ukraine. And they've already committed 70% of that combat power to this fight in Ukraine — with little to no effect. So, those ground forces that are meant to take cities and hold cities are in no position to do so. What's largely intact are the long-range fires. So, these are the planes, helicopters, artillery and ballistic missiles. Those things are still intact — the vast majority — and Russia continues and will continue to punish Ukraine through these airstrikes. But the military that you need to win this war — because this is not something that gets won in the air — we're probably within days of a turning point where it's not going to be able to achieve its objectives on the ground.
So, if it's not going well for Russia, do you expect Russia's military to change its strategy?
They've already changed the strategy at least once, possibly twice already. The first time was, again, rolling into these cities, leaving their supply lines exposed, getting a punishing resistance. They're taking losses, but they also need to be sustained with fuel and ammunition and food for the troops and those convoys coming in behind on these roads that are unsecured have been getting destroyed. This convoy that's north and west of Kyiv, that people have been talking about for days, is basically bogged down. It's stalled. It doesn't have the fuel. It doesn't have the ability to sustain itself. And Ukrainians are pretty much letting it sit there parked because it's a quagmire. I mean, as a matter of fact, I wouldn't be surprised if Russian forces started to abandon their vehicles, just march up north if that convoy stays parked there until the Ukrainians take it over and turn against the Russians. This is the trend line, but we could start to see Ukraine, after a devastating attack and destruction of major cities and loss of a lot of life, leaving with its sovereignty and territorial integrity intact. It's not something anyone would have expected. That's almost certainly going to be the case now. The question is, how much punishment they take and how much the Russian forces get ground down. This is far from done. This is going to play out over weeks and potentially months unless the Ukrainians have some major successes in taking out planes and long-range fires from Russia, that make it impossible for Russia to continue this campaign. This is going to play out over a long, long period of time, and the only way they could do that is if they get the support they need from the West.
And what kind of support do you think they need from the West?
They certainly need more of these anti-tank rounds, these javelins and all these other systems. They need more stingers because they need to be able to overcome the defenses of these planes and helicopters flying and the air defense that Russia has a right to knock out stingers. So, they need more of those, they just need greater numbers. But they also need things like unmanned aerial vehicles.
Are you talking about a drone?
Yes, exactly. It's an unmanned combat aerial vehicle operated from Ukrainian territory by Ukrainian armed forces that could strike deep targets. So, these long-range fires, these ballistic missiles that are raining down on the cities, those are being fired from across the border in Belarus. Ukraine tried to, but they have limited means to do so. They should be able to go after those targets.
Are you concerned that this war could expand beyond Ukraine's borders?
Absolutely. We have to remember that it's the largest country in the world attacking the largest country in Europe. That already illustrates how big the scale of this military offensive is, certainly the largest since World War II — and with devastating losses. Russia, by Ukrainian tallies, which I think are not too far off the mark, has lost 9,000 — 9,000 dead. In the entirety of their 10-year war in Afghanistan, they lost between 13,000 and 15,000 troops. That is a devastating loss for a week. So as this situation extends, Russia is going to incrementally ratchet up the tension. And in this ratcheting approach to take the temperature of NATO's responses, and in this incremental approach, we have the danger of maybe stumbling into a much, much larger confrontation. I think that's not unlikely. We already see some of this provocative action from Russia with regard to alert of its nuclear forces. We see this with regard to, you know, flying into Sweden's airspace and things of that nature. So, we see all these dangers unfolding. So, the only real way to end it is to give the Ukrainians everything that they need to end this war quickly.
Finally, you were born in Ukraine. How has this war impacted you personally?
Well, it's awoken something that I didn't even know really existed. I came here as a toddler, so my thoughts are always with America and American security. But I feel deeply for the Ukrainian people where my roots are, where my ancestors hail from and the suffering there. And I also have a deep sense of pride for how valiantly they've fought to preserve their freedom and to safeguard their homes. And I'm proud to start calling myself a Ukrainian American, something I was resistant to doing.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.