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Russia’s long game A civil-military relations expert explains why the Kremlin may be prepared to wage war in Ukraine for years to come
Analysts, researchers, and even the head of the CIA (according to German media reports) believe that Vladimir Putin is confident (despite failures on the battlefield, so far) that Russia will ultimately win the war against Ukraine. Consequently, some experts think Moscow will be willing to continue fighting for at least several more years. Ukraine’s Western allies have repeatedly vowed to support Kyiv for “as long as it takes,” but that’s surely easier said than done. For a better understanding of what the outcomes of such a long war might be, Meduza spoke to a Russian politics researcher who is a member of the Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society and holds a Ph.D. from Central European University. As a security measure, given our new designation as an “undesirable” organization under Russian law, we’ve omitted his name from this article.
As Russia’s war against Ukraine approaches the one-year mark, a growing set of observers have grown convinced that Russia’s leaders — spurred by the belief that a war of attrition will grant them more economic opportunities and increase their odds of victory — plan to continue their assault on Ukraine for years to come. The expert who spoke to Meduza agrees, though he’s skeptical that it’s possible to lay out a timeline with any certainty.
“Judging by how quickly things can change in war, and the number of factors at play, long-term planning has its place, but more as a [thought] exercise than [as a tool for] firm planning. But overall, in my view, [Moscow’s] logic is that [Russia will benefit from a longer war],” he said.
Right now, from the Kremlin’s perspective, he said, the name of the game is to inflict economic damage on Ukraine by targeting its energy infrastructure and forcing as much of its labor force to go abroad as possible. As Ukraine suffers more economically, he told Meduza, “Ukraine will have to put more weight on its Western partners, and first and foremost on the U.S.”
In this way, he said, the Kremlin hopes to create favorable conditions for its own political demands.
“I expect that over time, even Ukrainian politicians and oligarchs will begin to have questions about how much damage [the economy] can take, and whether it might not make sense to enter negotiations,” he said.
At the same time, he noted, it’s important to understand Putin’s domestic political concerns. Prolonging the war, he said, will dilute the intensity of Russia’s losses in the minds of Russian voters, and will likely serve to dial down the criticism being lobbied against the authorities both from the pro-war “fascist-patriotic” sector of Russia’s elites, as he puts it, and from whatever democratic opposition remains in the country.
“[That’s why] we see a lot of prisoners being used in private military companies: to minimize the number of [mobilized] soldiers who get injured and killed, which could become a political problem. People have less sympathy for criminals; nobody thinks much about them, and if they die, [many people’s reaction is] ‘okay, whatever,’” he said.
Why Kyiv’s Western allies decided to send tanks
As for whether several more years of war is realistic given Russia’s military capabilities, the expert said that while the Russian army is running up against material limitations, it’s difficult to make any concrete predictions based on the Russian army’s material limitations because logistical restrictions exist on both sides.
“We might predict, for example, that the Kremlin will run out of missiles or human capital in its armed forces. But that argument only makes sense when we understand what’s happening on the Ukrainian side: what resources they have, how they’re doing on arms and personnel,” he said.
One factor likely to play a role in the balance of power on the battlefield is the supply of modern Western tanks to Ukraine. But the analyst said he doesn’t believe these tanks will necessarily make a decisive difference.
“I think that [the main factor in the decision to supply Western tanks to Ukraine is that] it’s become politically uncomfortable for Western countries not to provide these weapons at all. There are no more arguments to be made to voters about why these tanks aren’t being provided. So [governments] have to do it,” he said.
And while the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks that Ukraine is set to receive from the U.S. and Germany will certainly be useful, the expert said, it’s worth remembering that other countries such as Poland have sent Ukraine hundreds of Soviet-made tanks already — and many of them seem to have been destroyed.
“[In addition], these [tanks] also need to be taken out of storage, brought back into commission, and repaired. Crews need to be trained, and enough ammunition needs to be found. So, I’m skeptical of the idea that [the current supplies] will make a decisive difference,” he said.
It’s also impossible to say exactly how many tanks would be enough to turn the tide, he said. “We can’t tell from open data, for example, how many weapons the Russian army has, and I doubt that even the [Russian] Defense Ministry has that information. We see the same thing with Western countries: they overestimate their own reserves and capacities,” he told Meduza.
Ukraine in NATO: a win-win?
The expert who spoke to Meduza predicted that in the months to come, we’ll likely see an expansion in the range of weapons Western countries will agree to give Ukraine.
“The strong increase began about a month after the start of the war. That was when Russian troops withdrew from the Kyiv region. The West understood, on one hand, that Putin’s plan to take Kyiv quickly had failed, and on the other hand, they saw the war crimes [committed by the Russian army],” he said.
As Ukraine’s Western allies have become less convinced of the threat of escalation, he said, they’ve become more willing to send more and more weapons.
“After that, while discussing supplies [of weapons to Ukraine, Western countries began] looking to see how the Kremlin was reacting,” the expert said. “It was a bit like tug-of-war. It was as if they would pull it towards themselves, look to see how the Kremlin would respond, and gradually transfer new equipment. It’s also called escalation control. Naturally, the Ukrainians don’t like all of this, but it’s a rational strategy that helps [Western countries] to avoid big mistakes. For example, if Ukraine had suddenly been given tanks in March, the Kremlin might have thought that [NATO forces were getting ready to enter] Ukraine and might have applied nuclear weapons.”
Notably, the expert said he believes that Ukraine’s entry into NATO would be beneficial both for Ukraine and for Russia. For Ukraine, it would allow the government to conduct meaningful reforms to demilitarize its police and intelligence apparatus and to establish civilian control over its security forces, among other things. It would also allow the country to redirect funding from the military to things like schools.
“[If Ukraine doesn’t join NATO], it will be a large country that invests its entire budget into its military in order to ensure its security [in the case of Russian aggression]. Or, [if it does join NATO], it will be a protected country under the umbrella of the U.S. [...] In material terms, the second option is a safer situation [for Russians], in my view. But for the Kremlin, on the contrary, that’s a bad scenario. It’s very profitable for the Kremlin if Ukraine is always preparing for war: it’s easy [for Russia] to unite people around ‘our leader’ against the backdrop of a supposed threat.”
The fickleness of Western voters
If the Kremlin is indeed banking on support for Ukraine among Western leaders to crumble, a lot depends will depend on Western citizens’ attitudes regarding the war. According to the expert who spoke to Meduza, residents of most Western countries can be divided into two camps when it comes to the war: a “peace” camp (or people who want the war to end) and a “justice” camp (people whose main priority is that Russia is punished).
“In all countries, the ‘peace’ camp is bigger than the ‘justice’ camp. Except for Poland, which is a very steadfast in its policy of punishing Russia [for its actions abroad],” he told Meduza.
That suggests that support for Ukraine still enjoys wide support in the West, he said, but that it comes with caveats.
“What are European citizens worried about? They’re worried about economic consequences and about a possible nuclear war with Russia. If something doesn’t change on the battlefield, voters are going to oppose a long-term war. Because of the cumulative effect of the economic consequences, we can expect that yes, support will gradually fall,” he said.
But this is likely to play out differently in different countries, he noted. In Sweden and Finland, for example, public support for spending on weapons for Ukraine is high, and even in Germany, despite society’s largely pacifist views, a majority of citizens blame Russia for the war. In the Baltic states, too, Ukraine can almost surely count on continued support.
On the other hand, there are countries like Hungary, which is likely to maintain its “detached” position regarding the war, and Turkey, which is trying to use Sweden and Finland’s NATO bids to make what the expert calls “unrealistic demands.”
Meanwhile, in the U.S., he said, support for Ukraine remains relatively high, but that’s likely contingent upon the fact that Americans aren’t currently feeling the effects of the war on their own lives (i.e. their pocketbooks). At the same time, American voters will go to the polls next year, and the country’s next president could significantly change U.S. policy on aid to Ukraine.
“More and more Republicans are portraying [current U.S. President Joe] Biden’s policies as untenable — they say that he’s responsible for the war. [They say] that under Trump, there was no war, and so you should vote for us,” he said.
However, he told Meduza, even if right-wing populists come to power in other countries that are currently supporting Ukraine, he doesn’t believe that will necessarily pose an existential threat to the war effort.
“On this issue, I tend to take a more conservative view: even if they win elections, the situation will remain stable. They’ll be restrained by the international institutional environment that’s developed in Western countries: NATO membership, EU membership. For this reason, sudden shifts, complete retractions of support, in my view, are simply not possible,” he said.
The only development that would be likely to alter the current state of affairs rapidly would be if another, equally significant military conflict began somewhere else in the world, the expert told Meduza. “The [main] candidates are China and Taiwan,” he said. “[…] If a drastic development on the scale of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan did cause the amount of Western aid to Ukraine to decrease significantly, the consequences would be wide-ranging.”
A decrease in the amount of military aid to Ukraine would be terrible news for Ukraine, he said, and would greatly lower the odds of defeating Russia. But the stakes would be high for the Western world as well, he added: “In Europe, few people think that Russia might attack NATO or the EU, but if Russia wins [the war in Ukraine], that would be a complete change in the international order. It would show that the U.S. and NATO aren’t able to guarantee security even in their own region.”
What would follow, he predicts, would be a trend in the direction of what the Kremlin calls a “more just world order” — or, in other words, “a world order in which authoritarian countries can do whatever they want, without paying any attention to the international rules,” the expert said. “And that’s not to mention the domestic political situation in Russia: [victory in the war] would increase Putin’s power and support for his initiatives in the future.”
But barring a game-changing military conflict, he said, Putin’s hope is that if he prolongs the war, it will eventually force Ukraine and its allies to enter into negotiations on terms that are favorable to Russia. In Putin’s thinking, the expert said, this will happen when Kyiv “understands that support is waning, and that the likelihood of victory on the battlefield is waning.” For now, Western allies appear ready to continue providing the aid necessary to prevent this from happening, but that aid depends on political will.
To reduce the odds of Ukraine losing support in the future, the expert said, “it’s important that [the aid] become more transparent, more structured. If the process is put on an institutionalized track, and security guarantees for Ukraine are officially formalized, then a change of power [in the U.S. or in Europe] will be a less dangerous scenario.”
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He also noted that the West will have to discuss the conditions for lifting the current sanctions against Russia, taking care to extract as many concessions from the Kremlin as possible while still making it feasible for the restrictions to be removed.
“For Russian society, it seems to me, there’s a certain danger here. I don’t believe, for example, that Putin’s resignation will be a priority for Western countries. Because their main interest is de-escalation [and not reforms in Russia],” he said.
The expert recounted how Western officials and diplomats at multiple conferences have privately expressed their concern to him that Putin could be succeeded by somebody with even more aggressive authoritarian ambitions.
“I consider that view unsound,” he said. “But whatever happens, in the end, Putin will continue to do what he wants with the Russian people. And Western countries won’t object — as long as he stops shooting [in Europe], everything will become more stable.”
English-language adaptation by Sam Breazeale
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