July 21, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 398

On Russia's Loss Of Its Sense Of Strategy

July 21, 2022 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 398

On July 7, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the top figures of the State Duma (the body that pretends to be Russia's "Parliament," but in fact functions as a part of bureaucratic machine used by the Kremlin to rule the country). The Duma meeting has been widely commented on in media, as Putin said that the West "should have realized that [it] would lose from the very beginning of our special military operation, because this operation also means the beginning of a radical breakdown of the U.S.-style world order." He then said: "Everyone should know that, by and large, we have not started anything in earnest yet. At the same time, we are not rejecting peace talks, but those who are rejecting them should know that the longer it goes on, the harder it will be for them to negotiate with us."[1]


Russia's Military Expenses Are Expected To Reach Seven Trillion Rubles

Yet, as the war in Ukraine goes on, the Kremlin's victory remains remote (if it is achievable at all), and Russian losses mount. According to estimates, the Russian army lost up to a quarter of the troops that participated in the initial attack, while the losses of tanks, armored vehicles, and aircraft are so massive that the country will need at least three to four years to replenish them.[2]

Russian defense enterprises were recently ordered to work round-the-clock[3] and the military expenses are expected to reach seven trillion rubles (around $123 billion) by the end of the year,[4] or five percent of gross domestic product. The economy seems to be doing relatively well in the macroeconomic sense, as Putin claims,[5] but there is no doubt that some industries are now being incapacitated (e.g., the automobile production in May 2022 was 30 times less than it was in May 2021).[6] Furthermore, as the contraction continues, many enterprises might stop their operations all over the country.

Even though Putin proclaimed that "we have many supporters, including in the United States and Europe, even more so on other continents and in other countries, and there will be more, there is no doubt about that,"[7] a growing number of long-time allies are turning their backs on Russia. Just recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping rejected Putin's polite invitation to visit Moscow,[8] and Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev almost openly sided with the countries that imposed economic sanctions on Russia.[9]

In this context, what seems clear is the complete loss of the sense of strategy that is now omnipresent in Moscow. I would even say that the recent months have reflected several departures from the picture of the world that was more straightforward before the Russia-Ukraine war started.

Economically, Russia Seems Very Fragile

First, it might be presumed that any country that starts a war should possess some understanding of how its opponents would react – but this was not the case in Russia. The Kremlin appeared completely unprepared not only for the fierce Ukrainian resistance, but for the massive Western reaction as well – and as a result Russia got half of its vast currency reserves arrested, its international air traffic disrupted, and several of its crucial industries immobilized.

The Russian authorities in fact recognized that the country cannot survive without continuing to import the most crucial supplies – and, instead of a much-advertised campaign for "import substitution," (the most recent description of the goods the government expects to be "substituted" by domestic industries now fills only a single page)[10] opted for so-called "parallel imports" (the complete list of products and devices fitting this program comprises 23 pages).[11]

The Russian economy looks now unable to produce not only high-tech consumer and investment goods, but modern weapons as well. I predicted almost three years ago that Russia would be unable to manufacture them in the necessary quantities.[12] This will lead Putin to a crushing defeat in Ukraine unless he decides to use his ultima ratio, the nuclear warheads (the chance for this, I would argue, is quite high, since there are no signs the Russian leadership can learn from its own mistakes). Hence, economically Russia looks very fragile, even if it may evade a catastrophe in the coming year or two.

Ukraine Is Rapidly Becoming The Most Militarized Country In Europe

Second, the Kremlin has stated over and over that Russia needs more security. In the 2021 Russian draft documents on legal security guarantees from the United States and NATO, Putin insisted on the demilitarization of Ukraine and even on NATO's effective retreat to its pre-1997 borders.[13]

Yet, as of today, Ukraine is rapidly becoming the most militarized country in Europe, with a standing army and self-defense forces expected to rise to a million people,[14] and its military capability grows stronger almost every day. Even if the West fails to deliver the support it has promised the Ukrainians, the latter have no choice but to fight, and their resistance will become more and more intense in the coming months. Any Russian who claims to know the history of the Russian empire should be aware of this before any invasion of a post-Soviet state. If the Kremlin occupies some part of Ukrainian territory, it will face nothing but rising guerrilla warfare – ambushes and the killing of collaborators with the Russian forces are already taking place.[15]

Moreover, Putin believed that the war on Ukraine would split NATO. Putin also said: "In the countries that are still satellites of the United States, there is a growing understanding that their ruling elites' blind obedience to their overlord, as a rule, does not necessarily coincide with their national interests, and most often simply and even radically contradicts them. Eventually, everyone will have to face this growing sentiment in society."[16] However, the result of the Russian aggression was not NATO's demise but rather Sweden and Finland's meteoric accession to the bloc, which as a result gained 1,270 kilometers of shared border with Russia at a time when Moscow desperately needs to relocate its troops from Karelia, on the Russia-Finland border, to Donbass.[17]

China Should Not Be Considered Russia's Devoted Ally

Third, before the war in Ukraine, it was widely believed that Russia had managed to establish a solid and long-term economic partnership and political alliance with China. Many American political scientists (including the acclaimed Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer) based their recommendations on appeasing Russia on the idea that if the West alienates Moscow, the latter will "fall into China's embrace" and create a strong anti-Western alliance. Yet, even before the beginning of the war, I wrote that there was no Sino-Russian political or military bloc,[18] since even the Treaty of Friendship between Russia and China never included a paragraph on military assistance in case of a third party's assault.

China has made great use of its economic relations with Russia as well as the two countries' com­mon anti-Americanism, but this does not mean that the two countries can set up a mighty anti-Western coalition. In fact, the war in Ukraine has made perfectly clear that such a coalition does not exist. China has effectively observed many anti-Russian sanctions and it did not support the Russian aggression (even though it did not directly condemn it). Nor did it recognize the "sovereignty" of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (on the contrary; it recognizes the sovereignty of Ukraine). China has banned Russian "stolen" Boeing and Airbus airplanes from landing in Chinese airports.[19] Russia's China policy has sent a strong signal to the West that China should not be considered Russia's devoted ally, thus nullifying one of the major threats anticipated by the Western politicians for years.

Russia's Unfriendly Actions Against Kazakhstan

Fourth, since the early 2010s, Moscow has promoted an agenda of post-Soviet integration that focused on Belarus and Kazakhstan, after it became clear that Ukraine was leaving the post-Soviet space. It seemed that the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2014 had been a crucial watershed in Russia's policy vis-à-vis former Soviet republics – the Kremlin even compared the EEU to the European Union and even suggested that its development would be more successful and faster than that of the European bloc.[20]

However, Russia's war in Ukraine and Moscow's implacability toward any dissent resulted in a number of unfriendly actions even against Kazakhstan, where the authorities declared they will never recognize changes in Ukraine's borders,[21] and started to consider measures preventing the infiltration of Western-sanctioned products into Russia.[22]

The most telling unfriendly move was the decision of a "court" in Novorossiysk to block the operations of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, due to "environmental irregularities," through which Kazakhstan exports up to 80 percent of its oil.[23] Even though the court suspended the activities for 30 days, Kazakhstan began looking for opportunities to circumvent the Russian territory in transporting its hydrocarbons.[24] I would say that the Kremlin's irresponsible policies may quite soon completely ruin the entire Eurasian Economic Union, which has begun to suffer from anti-Russian sanctions, with only the quasi-occupied Belarus (ruled by the deeply unpopular dictator Alexander Lukashenko), remaining inside Russia's "zone of influence." This all seems to be a strange achievement of the Kremlin's "grand strategy."

The Endless Waste Of Resources Will Become The Only Tangible Result Of Putin's Military "Adventure"

I would remind the reader that Russia now acts in Ukraine as if it had not planned beforehand to extend its own territory by somehow attaching the occupied regions to the Russian Federation. The leaks from the Kremlin suggest that at the highest level the discussion about whether to create a special "federal circuit" for these territories, or to include them into some of the existing ones, is underway.[25]

The Ukrainian authorities estimate the overall damage inflicted by the war at close to $1.1 trillion,[26] and even if that estimate might be discounted by half, up to 80 percent of ruined cities and infrastructure is concentrated in Russia-occupied regions. It seems they will suffer more as Ukraine intensifies the shelling of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk republics.

The cost of reconstruction of destroyed residential buildings in Donbass may reach, according to Russian sources, 1.5 trillion rubles (around $27 billion),[27] but I expect that the entire reconstruction project will be three to six times more expensive. So, if Moscow wishes to consolidate control over the already occupied Ukrainian territories, it would need to channel between one to two percent of Russia's GDP into their restoration for several consecutive years – and if it fails, life there would become intolerable. Therefore, I would say that Russia nowadays spends a lot of its money just to spend much more in the coming years – and this endless waste of resources will become the only tangible result of Putin's military "adventure."


On the second day of Russia's war against Ukraine, one of the great American strategists, Dr. Edward Luttwak, tweeted: "Prudent poker player Putin, who four times rose from the table with imperial gains (Abkhazia, S Ossetia, Crimea & this month, Belarus), is suddenly gambling recklessly at the roulette table by invading Europe's largest country with an army much too small for the task." He then added that Putin had reached his end.[28] One can hardly disagree with Luttwak's statement, as it shows that Ukraine's invasion was not a single and accidental mistake. The invasion reflected an alarming loss of strategic thinking by the elites of one of the world's greatest powers. The Kremlin is not only ill-informed by its loyal but incompetent and corrupt officials and intelligence officers – it is unable to calculate even most obvious consequences of its actions and forecast the most immediate reaction of its adversaries.

It is well known that Putin in recent years became preoccupied with Russia's history, but it seems that no one now cares about the country's future. In the economic, security, or geopolitical domains, no image of the desired future can be found, much less a preferred way to achieve it. The remarks of the Russian leaders mean that they are now fabricating some "parallel reality" in which highly desired but unreachable fantasies substitute the existing world with its trends and realities. The Kremlin people live in this constructed environment, being much comforted with it – but sooner or later they will encounter with a very different world, with little chances to survive this collision.

*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor.


[1], July 7, 2022.

[2], July 4, 2022.

[3], June 10, 2022.

[4], May 17, 2022.

[5], July 7, 2022.

[6], July 1, 2022.

[7], July 7, 2022.

[8], July 7, 2022.

[9], June 15, 2022.

[10] %D0%BF%D1%80%D0%BE%D0%BC%D1%8B%D1%88%D0%BB%D0%B5%D0%BD%D0%BD%D0%BE%D1%81%D1%82%D1%8C 21 %D0%B2~.pdf, May 2022.

[11], April 19, 2022.

[12], March 2019.

[13], December 17, 2021.

[14], May 13, 2022.

[15], June 22, 2022.

[16], July 7, 2022.

[17], July 5, 2022.

[18], August 25, 2021.

[19], June 2, 2022.

[20], October 3, 2011.

[21], July 17, 2022.

[22], July 6, 2022.

[23], May 7, 2022.

[24], July 7, 2022.

[25], June 1, 2022.

[26], June 21, 2022.

[27], June 13, 2022.

[28], February 26, 2022.

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