As the battle of wills and might between Russia and the west over the fate of Ukraine unfolds, there is one key fact to bear in mind: Vladimir Putin has never lost a war. During past conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Crimea over his two decades in power, Putin succeeded by giving his armed forces clear, achievable military objectives that would allow him to declare victory, credibly, in the eyes of the Russian people and a wary, watching world. His latest initiative in Ukraine is unlikely to be any different.

Despite months of military build-up along Ukraine's borders and repeated warnings from the Biden administration that an incursion could happen at any time, the February 24 pre-dawn bombing campaign that kicked off Europe's first land war in decades seemed to come as a surprise to many Ukrainians. In major cities across a country the size of the state of Texas, stunned citizens, lulled into complacency by their president's repeated reassurances that Russia would not invade, watched and listened to the sound of thunderous explosions targeting Ukrainian military bases, airports and command and control centres. Within 24 hours, the conflict spread rapidly, with Russian tanks and troops moving swiftly toward Kyiv, the capital; fierce battles in Kharkiv, the second largest city; and fighting around Chernobyl, the site of the disastrous 1986 nuclear reactor meltdown. Shock and awe, Russian style.

In an instant, Russian President Putin's invasion of Ukraine destroyed the post Cold War security order in Europe—one centered, to Russia's fury, by an often-expanding NATO alliance. Analysts expect that, once Kyiv falls, the military aggression will give way to a political settlement that puts a Russia-friendly government in place. By February 25, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was considering an invitation from Moscow to hold "neutrality" talks in neighbouring Belarus. If those talks happen, Putin will then be able to pull back troops and end the conflict—while having dealt the West a humiliating blow.

And that, military and Russia experts agree, may be the real point.

Ukraine, of course, is not a NATO member; the possibility that it might join the Alliance some day, as other countries that were once part of the old Soviet bloc have done, is a key issue in the current conflict. Putin's actions, a brazen defiance in the face of repeated warnings and threats of sanctions from U.S. President Joe Biden and western allies, now make it a certainty, if it wasn't before, that membership will never happen. Putin's aggression will also serve as a stark warning to countries formerly part of the Soviet Union of the possible repercussions of getting too cosy with the West.

The post Soviet status quo in Eastern Europe was one "that [Putin] never accepted," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of Russia in Global Affairs, a Moscow-based foreign policy journal. "It ate at him. He believes Russia was treated [by the West] as a second class citizen after the Soviet Union fell."

Now, western diplomats and intelligence officials believe, Putin seeks to decapitate the western-leaning leadership in Kyiv headed by Zelensky and replace it with a government that will be loyal to "the new Tsar," as former Estonian President Toomas Ilves calls Putin. That could happen, U.S. intelligence officials tell Newsweek, within days. Putin does not want, nor does he need, to occupy the entire country to accomplish his greater goals, intelligence analysts and officials say. As Ilves puts it, "He wants a puppet state like Belarus," another former Soviet province just north of Ukraine, and from which troops poured into Ukraine as the Russian bombing ramped up. With a new reality on the ground in Eastern Europe, Ilves continues, "Putin then wants to rewrite the security rules of the road between him and NATO."

Ukraine itself appears to share at least part of that view. A statement from Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine's presidential chief of staff, and shared with Newsweek by Ukraine's embassy in Washington, outlined what Kyiv suspected were Moscow's goals. "The Office of the President of Ukraine believes the Russian federation has two tactical goals—to seize territories and attack the legitimate political leadership of Ukraine in order to spread chaos and [to] install a marionette government that would sign a peace deal on bilateral relations with Russia," Podolyak said.

A United States that thought it was pivoting to Asia, and focusing on China—a country that is its preeminent rival going forward—has now been dragged back to Eastern Europe, where for centuries so much blood has been spilled. Putin now has the world's full, undivided attention, in the same way that every Secretary General in the Soviet era did. In chilling televised remarks after the invasion had begun, Putin said, "whoever tries to interfere [in Ukraine] should know that Russia's response will be immediate, and will lead to such consequences that you have never experienced in your history." Putin's subsequent announcement that he was putting Russia's nuclear forces on alerts, underscored the threat.

Russia is now back in the limelight, a nation that is demonstrating, with a display of military might, that it remains a Great Power. Which is precisely where Putin wants his nation to be. He believes Russia should at all times command respect from the rest of the world, "and when it doesn't command respect, it should command fear," as Lukyanov of Russia in Global Affairs puts it.

Mission accomplished. As Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy secretary general of NATO and a long time Russia watcher characterized it recently on the CBS podcast Intelligence Matters, "This is [Putin's] 'look at me' moment."

The West Responds

Within hours of the invasion, the United States and its allies responded by sharply ratcheting up economic sanctions but it's unclear whether the moves will deter the Russian leader. In a speech announcing the response, Biden said more than half of the West's high tech exports to Russia would be slashed, "degrading their industrial capacity," and hurting industries like aerospace and shipbuilding. He's also freezing the U.S. assets of four additional Russian banks, including VTB, the country's second largest financial institution, whose CEO is very close to Putin. "This is going to impose severe costs on the Russian economy, both immediately and over time," Biden said.

The following day, the White House announced it would join the European Union in implementing sanctions against Putin personally. The Russian President is widely thought to be one of the world's richest men, allegedly hiding much of his wealth in shell companies in various tax havens throughout the world.

How effective the sanctions will be is unclear. Putin, for his part, believes he has effectively made his country sanctions-proof. Russia has over $630 billion in hard currency reserves, and rakes in $14 billion per month in oil and gas exports. As Russia's ambassador to Sweden, Viktor Tatarintsev, told Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet days before the invasion began, when the West ramped up threats of financial penalties in a futile effort to prevent military action, "Excuse my language, but we don't give a shit about your sanctions."

Putin's history as a commander in chief of Russia's military shows that there may be reason to doubt Biden's optimism that Ukraine will turn into a quagmire for Moscow. Beyond the ruthless campaign to put down Muslim rebels in Chechnya, he hived off the two sections of the former Soviet state of Georgia that he wanted to control in 2008. Then in 2014 he took back Crimea in Ukraine, and set up separatist movements in two heavily Russian provinces in the east, Donetsk and Luhansk. (Two days before the February 24th invasion, Putin declared those two provinces were now "independent republics." )