Russia's "special military operation" (SVO) in Ukraine will soon conclude its first full year. By now, even Russian President Vladimir Putin openly referred to the ongoing SVO, as "war," despite having avoided this word for many months. However, even though the casualties are mounting (on New Year's Eve alone, Russia seems to have lost more than 500 servicemen, while Ukraine officials acknowledge that the numbers of the country's losses are "huge" and "indigestible"), the parties involved in the conflict seem to be ready for a long war.
Since mid-November, neither the Russians nor the Ukrainians reached considerable success. Even the prominent "hero" of the Donetsk People's republic, Igor Girkin, recently noted that no victory can be achieved through a frontal assault, stating that there is a need to apply more dynamic and smart strategies. Russia recently celebrated the alleged takeover of the tiny Donbas town of Soledar, as something comparable to the victory over the Nazis at Stalingrad. Yet, there is little chance for the situation on the ground to change.
The Strengths Of The Russian And Ukrainian Armed Forces
As of January 2023, Russia has retreated from some parts of the occupied territories and consolidated its positions. Furthermore, following mobilization, the Russian armed forces now have significant manpower, (even though they may be constrained by the availability of ammunition and equipment). In recent months, the Russian armed forces' defensive lines have strengthened significantly, their assault capabilities have increased, and, nowadays, there is reason to think that Putin will continue with another wave of mobilization that may bring the number of Russian troops on the front up to at least half a million by April.
As for the Ukrainian army, its officials are claiming that they are still engaged in incredibly heavy fighting around the Donbas city of Bakhmut rather than retreating from there. Ukrainian troops have also become more knowledgeable in the utilization of advanced Western weapons, which are being used to destroy Russian positions and kill hundreds of Putin's poorly trained men led by unprofessional and cruel commanders – the overall Russian casualties in recent weeks are estimated between 15,000 and 20,000 soldiers.
Many analysts are saying that Russia cannot be defeated because of its size and capabilities, while others think that Ukraine is heading toward a prompt victory. However, I would argue that too many elements are missing to make a forecast and that the war will remain the main geopolitical event in 2024.
Russia's "Silent Approval" Of The War
To explain why I do not believe in a dramatic change on the fronts in the coming months I would just focus on several points that seem to be absent from much of the published analytical texts or deliberately neglected by their authors.
On the Russian side, the most undervalued trend is that the ongoing war with Ukraine turned from "Putin's war" into a "people's war." Most of the observers do believe that the number of those supporting the aggression is decreasing since the polls indicate that around half of Russians are in favor of starting peace negotiations. However, this is a misleading assumption. It is true that most Russians want the war to stop – but few of them, as the polls conducted for the Kremlin administration suggest, want peace negotiations to happen on Ukraine's terms.
On the contrary, more and more Russian men and women are infuriated with Ukraine's devotedness to fighting Russian aggression and are angry because of the growing number of Russian casualties. Those who lost their relatives and friends, are already calling for total mobilization and for the annihilation of the "enemy." Hence, the second round of mobilization looks almost inevitable. However, this time, the mobilization will be less opposed by the people (although we will still have the same amount of emigration from Russia that the first produced in 2022). Putin has actually succeeded in the "silent approval" of the war, as polls indicated that around 70 percent of Russians are not against the intervention in Ukraine, and in amassing an unlimited pool of manpower. Therefore, despite the prediction of many experts, the development of a Russian anti-war movement seems to be far on the horizon.
Russia Still Possesses Enough Weapons
The capacity of Russia's military-industrial complex is also worth emphasizing. While it still cannot produce enough new munitions for the army, Russia's military-industrial complex has improved since last autumn. Russia has started to use Soviet-era missiles to hit targets all over Ukraine, increased production of less sophisticated new missiles, and restored the supply of armored vehicles to the frontline. With Iranian drones, smuggled spare parts, and a 20-25 percent increase in overall defense industry output, Russia seems able to wage the war for an almost indefinite period at the current intensity (this description of Russia's capabilities looks very different from the analysis of some experts that, during the past summer, suggested that Moscow would deplete its ammunition stockpiles quite soon).
I might be too pessimist, but I think Russia still possesses enough weapons to continue destroying Ukrainian infrastructure and may turn its attention to bombarding large cities to diminish Ukraine's will to resist (this has been seen recently, as a Russian missile destroyed a residential compound in the city of Dniepr, resulting in one of the largest numbers of civilian casualties since the start of the war). Anyway, even without using its nukes, Moscow seems far from rethinking its military plans.
Russia's Financial Resources
Of course, in order to continue the war, Russia needs sufficient financial resources. In recent weeks, citing the oil price cap and the European embargo on crude and processed Russian oil, many analysts suggest that Putin will run out of money soon – but I think this assumption is simply wrong. Of course, the Russian budget will go much more into red than has been predicted (and I myself argued in favor of such an estimate in my recent analysis for MEMRI), but for at least one or even two years, the government may balance the federal budget by increasing domestic borrowing and using its financial reserves (some Russian experts even believe that the financial situation may "stabilize" by mid-2023, and the government may once again channel some funds into the currently depleting National Wealth Fund). Even though I consider such developments to be very unlikely, I am instead pretty sure that the war will not paralyze the Russian economy, and the sanctions will cause a moderate decrease in oil production by around 15 percent year-to-year, which would be painful but not at all crucial.
Certainly, at some point in the future, the current military buildup will result in a kind of rapid economic downturn. However, these days, the Russian leadership only hopes not to have challenges ahead of the upcoming 2024 presidential elections in which, I believe, Putin will be "re-elected" without problems.
Putin Successfully Turned Russians Into A Pliable Mass
For many years of his "reign," Putin inspired his fellow citizens with the value of "stability," even though the country was not so stable, as the Constitution was rewritten, and laws were modified almost on a weekly basis. The only stable thing was that the changes in the country were less and less dependent on the will of the population, which was left with a feeling that the present and the future were predetermined. The year 2022, in my opinion, massively changed the Russian people: Their feeling of inevitability has degenerated into indifference. Hence, Putin successfully turned Russians into a collection of people who do not constitute society, being a pliable mass.
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It is worth noting that, during most of Putin's rule, people had valued relatively high incomes and the state's abstention from intervening in people's private lives. However, all this changed beginning in 2020 – first due to the COVID-19 restrictions, and later because of the war. These events made most Russians extremely obedient. Hence, they may try to somehow sabotage some of the government's decisions but will not rise against them. The people will not fight against the destruction of the free press, the repressions of those opposing the war, or the introduction of new laws targeting either the LGBT+ community or those Russians who have recently fled the country.
Furthermore, even if a significant portion of people want the war to be stopped, almost no one believes it might be achieved through anything except Putin's order. The notion that Russia is under siege, and the country of Russia is not at war with Ukraine, but with the Western world – or, at least, with the NATO countries – is now widespread. In fact, Kremlin propaganda has a tremendous and growing effect on the nation. Despite the fact that a moderate decrease in trust in the government has been recorded, this has not been converted into any serious intent to change the political situation.
Ukraine Considers Itself To Be "De Facto" A NATO Member State
On the Ukrainian side, however, the most undervalued factor is the Ukrainians' will to repel Russian aggression. Many U.S. and European analysts continue to argue that "Russia cannot be defeated" and there is a growing need to terminate the hostilities – but the Ukrainians are now in quite a different mood. The partial successes in Kharkiv and Kherson regions made the Ukrainians confident in their military capacities. In addition, it looks like no new assault would originate from Belarus, and the ongoing leapfrog changes in the Russian high command suggest that any significant offense is not very probable until Russia finalizes its second stage of mobilization or authorizes the use of conscripts enlisted during the autumn 2022 call-up.
It is also worth noting that Ukraine succeeded in securing more crucial military supplies from its Western allies than in 2022, as news is circulating about agreements on Patriot air defense systems, tanks, and armored vehicles from the U.S., UK, and Germany, and other highly efficient weapons.
As Ukrainian Defense Minister Alexei Reznikov recently said, Ukraine considers itself to be a de facto NATO member state, and it has started to act accordingly, expressing no doubt that its entire territory should be liberated. I would say that these days nothing can change this mood, and this factor should not be underestimated.
It should also be noted that both Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian economy have adjusted to the war. Ukraine's GDP contracted by more than 30 percent in 2022, but this is an issue of concern, considering that up to a fourth of the country's territory has been, at some point, under Russian control, that at least three million people (i.e., around the 15 percent of Ukraine's workforce) found refuge abroad during most of 2022, and that Russia has been targeting civilian infrastructure all over the country, leaving them without electricity.
For at least 2023, Ukraine looks secured by European and American military and financial aid. There is no need to raise taxes to balance the budget, and private enterprises seem to work well even under continuous pressure. These days, Ukraine provides a unique example of a modern state waging a cruel war but retaining much of its peace-time practices and habits (this differs from the common notion that war causes unavoidable turmoil in both the economic and social life of the affected nation). So, at this moment, there are no signs that would suggest that Ukraine may fall to Russian aggression.
The war in Ukraine, which shocked the entire world when it was launched in February 2022, has become routinized. If we use historical analogies, this period can be compared to mid-1915. WWI started in 1914, and in mid-1915 heavy fighting was still ahead, but all major parties believed in their victory and were confident that they would survive many more months, if not years, of the ongoing hostilities. Surely, there is little doubt that Russia will eventually lose and that Ukraine will regain at least most of the occupied territories, but I do not expect the fall of Putin's regime, even if the aims of the war are not secured. As strange as it may seem, the Kremlin profits from the West's support to Ukraine, because it can continue telling its "subjects" that "NATO is at war against Russia."
I believe the war will continue through all of 2023, since the most crucial thing for the Russian President is not to terminate the hostilities by the time of his "re-election" in March 2024. In this way, he can keep claiming that Russia is under foreign attack and that he is the only one who can counter it. I would also expect the consolidation in the Russian power elite in the coming months, with a significant decrease in the influence of all "non-conventional" forms of warfare, including the use of "private armies," convicted criminals and ethnic battalions, and the strengthening of the Russian defense of the occupied territories.
We are now in a war of attrition, and significant changes may occur only after mid-2024. As the trajectory of the Russian regime emerges, and both Ukraine and the West will appear to be exhausted by the ongoing conflict, only then may some options for terminating the conflict become clear.
*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor, and Founder and Director of Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies.
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