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Can Russia afford to commit to a years-long war?

by Katie Marie Davies March 31, 2023 2:17 AM 7 min read
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen on a screen set at Red Square as he addresses a rally and a concert marking the proclaimed annexation of four regions of Ukraine Russian troops partly occupy – Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – in central Moscow on Sept. 30, 2022. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)
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When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an all-out war against Ukraine, U.S. intelligence claimed that Russian forces planned to sweep Kyiv within days.

More than 13 months on, Ukraine's defenses still stand firm. But Ukrainians are now faced with a different threat – the Kremlin appears to be trying to morph its botched full-scale invasion into a years-long war.

The prospect aligns neatly with the Kremlin's actions in Ukraine over the past decade, engineering and exploiting its invasion in Ukraine's east and south.

Many experts now see the looming prospect of a long-term war as an increasingly likely scenario, with Putin attempting to keep his firm grip over Russia in a prolonged war of attrition with Ukraine.

In many ways, Moscow has already prepared the groundwork for a long-term war in Ukraine, presenting its invasion as a moral imperative inexorably linked to Russia's survival.

"I do not even know if such an ethnic group as the Russian people will be able to survive in the form in which it exists today," Putin said on Feb. 26, a year after launching the largest invasion since World War II.

Russia has long positioned itself as a bastion of "traditional values" against Western moral decay, says Jade McGlynn, an author and research fellow at King's College London focusing on Russia's war against Ukraine, propaganda, and memory politics.

But control of Ukraine, in particular, is central to Russia's cultural and political imagination, she says. Relinquishing that claim now would be an unbearable blow to the Kremlin's self-image and self-appointed right to rule.

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"Russia's rulers see themselves as the inheritors of Kyivan Rus. It's central to Russia's understanding of itself as a third Rome or as a great power," McGlynn told the Kyiv Independent.

"We've heard a lot of arguments (from Russian propaganda) about how Ukraine doesn't have any history without Russia. I think, in some ways, it's the opposite," she adds.

"The construction of history that Russia has made for itself to justify all of its behavior, it doesn't work if they can't control Ukraine in some way," McGlynn says.

Russia can still fight

Putin politically has much to gain from continuing his invasion long-term. He also has much to lose if the war doesn't end in his favor.

The proclaimed annexation on Sept. 30 of four Ukrainian regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson oblasts, as well as occupied Crimea back in 2014 – leaves Russia, and its leader, little room to maneuver.

The Kremlin's decision to announce a "partial mobilization" is another sign that Moscow is committed to a long-term war, says Andrew Radin, a political scientist at U.S. global policy think tank the Rand Corporation.

"Russia has always had the option of undertaking mobilization for a larger war. They've now been forced to do that in Ukraine and rely on the sheer size and scope of Russia," he says.

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"They have the demographic ability to keep recruiting people, and they have shown an ability to forcibly recruit people with limited political repercussions for the regime."

But long-term, dwindling supplies of modern military equipment will be a far more pressing issue for Russia's Armed Forces.

Sanctions have halted the supply of technology that Russia needs to produce equipment such as up-to-date tanks or precision missiles, meaning it could be forced to rely on the country's significant yet outdated stock of old Soviet-era supplies, such as T-72 tanks, and their predecessor the T-64, which was already spotted on the battlefield.

The S-300 air defense missiles were also recently repurposed to be used as attack weapons.

But these challenges, while a significant blow, aren't entirely insurmountable, says Radin.

Russia's army has been badly bruised in Ukraine, yet it still has the capability to continue fighting, even with old weapons and a disregard for human life.

"We've seen reports, for example, that the Russian military is relying on (Russian Wagner mercenaries) to undertake initial assaults, and once they've softened up to Ukrainian defenses, then they send in their better-equipped forces," Radin adds.

"Perhaps this way of Russia using both old capabilities and new capabilities is something that Ukraine will have to grapple with," he says.

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Stable economy, stable leadership

The same sanctions that have hampered the Russian army's ability to produce new equipment have also seen Russia's economy stagnate, stripping away its ability to innovate.

But they haven't destabilized the country, allowing Russia to largely operate as normal, says Alexandra Prokopenko, an independent researcher on Russia's political economy and a visiting fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

"The Russian economy is extremely resilient to crisis, and it's very, very well managed," she says.

Although any growth to Russia's GDP will remain marginal, "the economy will survive because the Russian economy is large and is actually well diversified. It will function more or less."

Russia's new wartime economy will also be able to continue for a number of years unless a larger external shock changes the status quo, says Prokopenko.

A significant drop in Russian oil and gas exports, or more political pressure on India or China to cut ties with Russian businesses, are two potential scenarios that could spark problems for the Russian economy.

Otherwise, living conditions are unlikely to change drastically enough to prompt real unrest from Russia's masses or business elites.

"For oligarchs, there's uncertainty on both sides, from the West, who are trying to sanction them, and from Putin, who is trying to assure them that everything will be fine in Russia," says Prokopenko.

"Of course, no one believes Putin at all. But between that and uncertainty in the West, they will choose the devil they know," she adds.

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Putin's game of chicken

In the meantime, Putin can use an elongated conflict to secure his position at home, using wartime legislation to imprison the already silenced opposition or dissenters.

Russia is ready to hold for long but is ultimately waiting until the wider world tires of supporting Ukraine, says McGlynn.

If aid and military support dry up, Putin expects to have an easier time attempting to reach his main goal – imposing his will on Ukraine.

Russia has already tried repeatedly to dissuade the international community from arming Kyiv, threatening a "global catastrophe," hinting at its nuclear arsenal.

On March 28, Russia attempted to raise the stakes by announcing it was open to storing nuclear weapons in Belarus, its neighbor and closest ally, also a dictatorship.

​​The need to maintain a united international effort to support Ukraine — and Moscow's belief that unity will fracture — is a looming issue about which Kyiv's NATO allies appear acutely aware.

Speaking in January 2023, a few weeks before his trip to Kyiv, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters that "Putin expected Europe and the United States to weaken our resolve. He expected our support for Ukraine to crumble with time."

Biden was keen to emphasize that the Kremlin was wrong. Yet support among the American public towards providing Ukraine with military aid is starting to fall.

A recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that while 60 percent of U.S. adults favored sending Ukraine weapons in May 2022, that number had since fallen to 48 percent in Feb. 2023.

Ukraine is not reliant on the United States alone.

The Ukraine Defense Contact Group, an international coalition providing Kyiv with military aid, counts 54 countries among its members.

But the U.S. does make a particularly large contribution, having pledged more than $46 billion so far. The figure dwarfs military aid from other large donors, including the $5.1 billion promise from the U.K. and the $3.3 billion from the European Union.

If Putin does commit to long-term war, it may not be because he believes Moscow's troops can outlast indefinitely — but because he believes the offensive can last until the next U.S. election.

"A lot of people in Russia genuinely believe that they care more about Ukraine than the West does," says McGlynn. "They (still think they) will win because the West will buckle."

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