Is Russia in trouble?
It is. In a manner of speaking, Vladimir Putin, till the start of 2022 had about him all the signs of a master strategist and a ruthlessly efficient man – a leader that had clear portions of the kind of boldness that China lacked, or the intelligence that the West seem to have surrendered.
His ascent has been spectacular (Marin Katusha has it traced in his book The Colder War), if not by the standards of the ideals of Western liberalism or democratic principles, at least by the results of realistic behaviour when dealing with an expansionist power (EU-NATO) and a re-emergent ideology (Communist Party of China). His takeover from Yeltsin and transformation of Russia into a regional power with distinct edges that the West seemed resigned to, within the span of a decade and a half is an achievement that does not have a parallel in contemporary history.
And this trajectory only reinforced itself through the successful Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, Syria in 2015, and in 2022 after quashing the Kazakhstan riots, he appeared like the kind of leader that would be treated with (cautious) deference in the history books of future.
But as the Ukraine war marches on it now looks like his biography title could alter to be on the lines of an authoritarian that got too proud, too ambitious.
One would not know the names of the people that sold him the idea that a protracted war in Ukraine is winnable, or about the exact number of their miscalculations that resulted in this decision. But one can check the translation of these as one looks at the losses – both manpower and hardware.
Even discounting the Western propaganda, they look fairly embarrassing for the heavy tilt of martial balance that Russia enjoyed before the start of the war. But about 3500 (till the last update) Russian vehicles and equipment destroyed as against about 1000 Ukrainian is an unbelievable equation against an invading nation (the website lists only those hardwares that have been photographed and documented).
Much of this is the result of mile-long convoys of Russian trucks stuck midway for the lack of fuel and the anti-armour javelin missiles that Donald Trump made available to Ukraine. The late realization that the Russian army, no matter how strong, can not operate well if separated from railway lines now seems very costly.
Speaking of costs, it looks like a chaos of fairly big proportions in the balance sheet as well. Iraq and Afghanistan left a giant like the USA (USD 240 trillion) limping. Imagine what a failed blitzkrieg in Ukraine might do to a USD 1.5 trillion economy. Missiles like Kinzhal or Iskander cost upwards of a few hundred million dollars. An Amarta tank costs about USD 8 million. The Ka-52M chopper costs USD 15 million. For each of those fired/destroyed, that is a huge hole in any country’s budget.
Ever since Vietnam and later Afghanistan had demonstrated the efficacy of a low-expense rural/urban resistance, big military powers have been hesitant about marching in and occupying hostile territories.
From low-cost Toyota trucks and AKs of the 80s, irregular warfare has now moved to a level where Ukrainians have been supplied with Nimble rocket launchers free of cost(!) along with anti-tank weapons at a price that would look less than pocket change to those that buy or use million dollars worth weaponry. Then there are soldiers’ salaries, supply chain disruptions, and sanctions that run even into the import of spare parts for the Russian armoury.
The picture of the Russian army marching towards Kyiv was a sign that someone there was thinking beyond the Primakov Doctrine. With signals of that same march stalling and later on being stopped on its tracks it appears now that Putin’s deviation from the doctrine (that which would have meant slicing Donbas and the Black Sea access only) probably for the first time in his public life into an aim to cascade an overt regime change has been too ambitious, or ill-informed.
What could possibly happen now?
Realistically, it would make more sense if Russia gave up its designs on Kyiv and Kharkiv, and consolidated over Donbas and the Black Sea coast. A full control would mean taking over Odessa, and that is what the target should be. It has to take into account that Ukraine would push back, and possibly, quite soon. If digging heels looks like a future possibility then ceasing a full-scale military offensive in exchange for irregular, asymmetric defensive warfare is the move.
No one knows how and under what conditions a ceasefire would shape up or hold. Assuming that the West wants to see a definitive conclusion even at high costs, Russia would be left badly battered economically whether it controls Donbas or not. A kind of wound that would make the loss of twelve generals in Ukraine look pale. Controlling and administering destabilized zones like the ones mentioned above, with a near stoppage of the dollar and euro flow into the economy are two challenges along two different spectrums.
While Russia can survive an isolation, that would mean a fair amount of restructuring of its workforce and internal logistical capabilities. Both of them seem lacking as of now. A reorientation of such a large scale requires a large amount of highly motivated workers. When the sovereign wealth fund runs low, a possible way out would be to increase taxes (Russia is among the lowest tax collectors). With inflation hitting in and taxes going up, motivation would be a difficult commodity to find.
To expect demotivated workers to quickly turn the entire economic system inwards for survival and sustenance seems very difficult if not impossible. And even if that difficulty is surmounted and Russia survives, it would be left weak and secluded from the global arena in a manner that might put a longish halt to Putin’s ambition of becoming the alpha Eurasian power.
Would the master strategist manage to ride that kind of a probable fallout? “We’ll see”, as the zen master of Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War would say.
Arindam Mukherjee is an author and a Learning & Development professional who likes to dabble in Eurasian geopolitics during his spare time. He lives in Calcutta.