Putin's Disaster in Ukraine

On Vladimir Putin’s order, the Russian army launched a new invasion of Ukraine in February. That has inflicted tragedy on Ukrainians but, seven months later, has also proved a catastrophe for Russia.
President of Russia Vladimir Putin

On Vladimir Putin’s order, the Russian army launched a new invasion of Ukraine in February.  That has inflicted tragedy on Ukrainians but, seven months later, has also proved a catastrophe for Russia.  By all appearances, Putin remains fixed on his war of choice, now betting the West’s will to support Ukraine will ebb with time.  The West should ensure that that becomes another one of his grievous miscalculations.

A War Gone Awry

On February 24, Russian forces attacked Ukraine from the north, east and south.  The assault vectors suggested they sought to occupy Kyiv and as much as the eastern two-thirds of Ukraine.  Staunch resistance drove the Russians back from the capital.  By early April, Russian forces had withdrawn from Kyiv and the north, though they occupied parts of southern Ukraine.  Moscow then proclaimed the downsized goal of taking Donbas, consisting of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, parts of which Russian and Russian proxy forces had occupied since 2014.

After more than three months of grinding fighting, the Russian army held most of Luhansk oblast.  In July, the Russians turned their military efforts to Donetsk oblast but made scant progress.  Western experts begin speaking of the Russian army’s “culmination”—the point where the combination of casualties (particularly of experienced personnel), loss of equipment, troop exhaustion and low morale make it difficult for a force to sustain a coherent offensive.

After six months of fighting, the conflict seemed to have become a war of attrition.  However, the Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive in Kherson, aimed at driving Russian forces from the only area west of the Dnipro River that they occupied.  They then struck in the Kharkiv region, routing Russian forces and liberating more than 2000 square miles in the first two weeks of September.  While the Russian military continues to occupy large swathes of Ukraine, the tide of war has shifted in Kyiv’s favor, as poor leadership, tactics and logistics hamper Russian forces.

Growing Losses for Russia

The war has meant heavy losses for Russia, first and foremost in its military ranks.  In mid-August, Western intelligence estimated that 15,000-25,000 Russian soldiers had been killed in action and another 45,000-60,000 wounded (the Russians have not reported casualty numbers since March).  These totals have certainly grown over the past month.  The Russian military has also lost substantial amounts of equipment, including confirmed losses of 1100 tanks, 1200 infantry fighting vehicles and thousands of other items.  The Russian defense budget will require many years to replace that equipment, and the Russian army increasingly must make do with older weapons, such as T-62 tanks first produced five decades ago.  Russian arms exporters will likely find that the Russian brand has lost much of its luster with overseas customers.

Western sanctions are exacting a growing economic price.  While the Central Bank of Russia has managed the crisis well, inflation still ran at a hefty 14 percent in September.  In August, the Central Bank reported that the Russian economy had contracted by 4 percent since 2021.  A confidential study purportedly done for the Kremlin provided a grim outlook, projecting an “inertial” scenario of the economy’s contraction bottoming out in 2023 at 8.3 percent below its 2021 level.  The European Union’s coming embargo on most imports of Russian oil and the G7’s planned price cap could significantly cut the revenues that Moscow earns from oil exports.

The West’s ban on export of semiconductors and other high tech products affects both Russia’s defense and civilian manufacturing sectors, and the impact will grow with time.  Since the beginning of the war, more than 1000 multinational companies have exited Russia altogether or substantially curtailed operations there.  There is also brain drain, with tens of thousands of IT specialists reported to have left the country.

Russia has also incurred steep geopolitical costs.  NATO is reenergized, and almost all members are increasing their defense spending.  Putin and the Kremlin did not like the small multinational battlegroups that NATO deployed as trip-wire forces in the Baltic states in 2015; they will like even less the scaled-up contingents being deployed there now.  And the entry of Finland and Sweden into the Alliance will make the Baltic Sea, in effect, a NATO lake.

In sum, Putin’s war has cost Russia much.

Disaster and Dilemma

A series of miscalculations led Putin to this disaster.  The Kremlin apparently did not believe the Ukrainians would resist and expected a quick victory.  Some invading Russian units crossed the border with only two-three days of food rations.  The Kremlin overestimated the might of its military.  Anecdotal reports, such as one that T-80 tank reactive armor was filled with rubber instead of an explosive charge, suggest that corruption, endemic in Russia, has not left the defense sector untouched.  The Kremlin also apparently did not expect NATO’s sharp response, the decisions by Finland and Sweden to seek to join the Alliance, the Western flow of arms to Kyiv, or the scale of economic sanctions.

Russia itself is not yet in crisis.  The economy, while grappling with growing problems, has not broken down, and the Russian military retains formidable capabilities.  But the Kremlin faces a far more difficult situation than it imagined in January, and it will get worse.

Whether Putin fully grasps this is an open question.  On September 7, he said that “we [Russia] have not lost anything and will not lose anything,” a bizarre assessment that the many thousands of Russian families who have lost loved ones in Ukraine surely do not share.  Russian officials have indicated that Kremlin conditions for ending the war remain unchanged from the total capitulation they demanded at the start.  Following a September 13 phone call with Putin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz noted “there was no indication that new attitudes are emerging.”

Putin faces limits in continuing the war, some self-imposed.  He termed the invasion a “special military operation” (calling it a “war” in Russia can lead to jail time), and he has sought to minimize the scale of the conflict in the eyes of the Russian public.  Despite heavy casualties, the Kremlin officials say they are “not discussing” mobilization.  Russia instead has scrapped the age limit for contract soldiers while scouring prisons for volunteers.  Calls outside the Kremlin have increased for a major mobilization.  However, that could alarm the broader Russian public, who will fear their sons will be drafted and sent to fight.  In any case, it would take considerable time to train new units and equip them with modern arms.

Putin’s Big Bet

The Ukrainian military may well rack up further gains before winter, when the pace of fighting should slow, but the war will continue for some time.  The question:  will the growing economic pain and agonizing flow of dead and injured soldiers home erode the Russian will to fight, or will a weak economy and lack of weapons and ammunition erode Ukraine’s ability to defend itself?

The West has a say in this.  If it continues to provide the arms and financial support the Ukrainians need, their military has the resolve to prevail and defeat the Russian invasion.  Putin is betting, however, that Western support will falter.  He hopes the rising price of energy and costs of assisting Ukraine will undermine European and U.S. support for Kyiv.

The West must stay the course and show Putin his bet is a loser.