NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday said Russian President Vladimir Putin “made a big, strategic mistake” when he invaded Ukraine in late February, spurring the expansion of the Western security alliance with the incoming additions of Finland and Sweden.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Stoltenberg said it was clear Putin wanted to decrease the influence and reach of NATO when he invaded Ukraine, but that his war had entirely backfired with new, high-powered militaries joining the 30-member security block.
“I will not speculate about his feelings, but he made a big, strategic mistake,” Stoltenberg said at the conference. “One of the stated purposes with this invasion of Ukraine was to get less NATO on Russia’s borders. … And now he gets more NATO enlargement.”
Stoltenberg also said Putin had failed to capture key territory in Ukraine, citing the withdrawal of Russian troops around the capitol region of Kyiv last month followed by a more limited offensive to take control of the eastern Donbas region.
“The plan was to take Kyiv, to decapitate the government and take control of the country,” the secretary-general said. “He has been forced to withdraw his forces from Kyiv and the north… and the offensive in Donbas is moving very slowly.
“I’m not predicting the outcome of this war, no one can do that,” Stoltenberg continued, “but Russia did not achieve its goals in Ukraine.”
Earlier this month, the United Kingdom’s Defense Ministry said Russia had likely lost around one-third of its ground forces in Ukraine, of about 150,000 troops. NATO in March said Russia had lost around 40,000 troops.
Amid a dragged out war, Putin is also countering opposition at home, pushing through a “fake news” law that punishes anyone who speaks out about the war in Ukraine, which Russia refers to as a “special military operation,” or against the nation’s armed forces.
McDonalds and Starbucks are among the latest multinationals pulling business out of Russia over the war in Ukraine. And sanctions from NATO members and their partners around the world have badly hurt the Russian economy, though experts say Putin is prepared for a long war.
Russia has declared victory over a few cities in the east, including the port city of Mariupol, which was bombarded by Russian forces for months. But Russia’s offensive in the eastern Donbas is slowing amid stiff resistance from Ukrainian defenders, who have been heavily backed by the US and other NATO allies.
British intelligence on Tuesday showed Russia is pushing to encircle three key cities in the Luhansk region — Lysychansk, Rubizhne and Sievierodonetsk.
Stoltenberg said Putin had planned for a “short, military operation” — an objective that had largely failed more than three months in to the war.
“It’s a long, costly war for Russia,” the NATO chief said.