Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned into a quagmire for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia is now engaged in a war it cannot win. No matter how events play out on the battlefield, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a strategic disaster for Russia.
The inept Russian military advances and the strong performance from Ukraine’s forces have given Ukraine an incredibly dangerous weapon in war: belief. Ukrainian forces have fought valiantly and withstood Russian incursions. Ukraine has now mobilized as a country to fight and have imposed significant losses on Russian forces. Though it is difficult to assess casualty figures, NBC reported that U.S. and Ukrainian officials both estimate nearly 6,000 deaths compared to official Russian figures at nearly 500. Even if the numbers at the lower end are accurate, that would still amount to a substantial toll. The losses for Russia may worsen, as the war shifts to a more violent phase, with Russian forces trying to take major Ukrainian cities, where they will likely face tremendous resistance.
U.S. and Ukrainian officials both estimate nearly 6,000 deaths compared to official Russian figures at nearly 500. Even if the numbers at the lower end are accurate, that would still amount to a substantial toll.
Even if Russian forces abruptly take Kyiv or destroy Ukraine militarily, such tactical victories on the battlefield will do little to help Russia govern Ukraine. Politically, Ukraine is lost for Russia. Potential military success won’t make this any less of a political disaster for Russia. It is not just the military resistance to Russian forces that should worry Putin—just as significant are the peaceful protests that are playing out in small towns “seized” by Russian forces. It is very hard to see how a pro-Russian puppet regime will govern the country. Any installed regime will need the support of a massive security apparatus to terrify the population, arrest dissidents, and brutally suppress any insurgency. There is little doubt that Putin would be willing to proceed down this path. But it is difficult to see how he can do so practically. The military force sent to invade Ukraine might be large enough to take the country, but it is not large enough to govern it.
To control Ukraine, Russia will have to have support from actors on the ground—politicians, police, and other security forces. In the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the United States had some significant popular support from the oppressed Shia majority and was removing a reviled dictator. It is difficult, if not impossible, to see widespread Ukrainian acceptance of a Russian occupation and a pro-Russian leader. Comprehensive Russian military success on the battlefield, coupled with significant financial enticements, might entice some in Ukraine to support such a regime. But given that Ukrainian society has already mobilized for war, there will doubtless be people that keep up the fight and resort to an insurgent campaign to increase the costs of Russia’s occupation. No matter what, Ukraine will be a huge economic and military drain for the Kremlin.
The economic costs from sanctions will weaken Russia as a global power
The economic sanctions will, quite simply, make Russia a poorer country. It is facing an economic catastrophe and will be forced to use whatever resources it has to limit the economic damage to its economy. The Russian stock market has not opened this week due to concerns about losses.
Russia will face a conundrum. It will need to prop up its economy and sustain an incredibly expensive war. Over the longer term, it will have to make tough budgetary choices between keeping the economy afloat or investing in rebuilding its military. Additionally, Russia being cut off from access to advanced technology will not just erode its long-term economic competitiveness but will also potentially harm its relative military strength.
Putin now needs to worry about his internal standing
There appears to be little support for this war amongst the Russian public, and dissatisfaction will likely grow as Russian casualties mount. But, more fundamentally for Putin, the economic fallout potentially upsets the de facto bargain Putin made with the Russian public upon coming to office in January 2000: he would bring stability to a country plagued by the chaos of the 1990s and, in exchange, the public would accept autocratic rule. The present economic calamity upsets that bargain, which could lead to increasing public discontent toward Putin.
Additionally, Russia’s oligarch class has been absolutely hammered by this crisis and clearly were blindsided—just like the population as a whole—by Putin’s decision to invade. Russia is one of the most unequal societies in the world. There are 500 Russian citizens with a net worth of more than $100 million that control 40 percent of the country’s household wealth. The oligarch class is likely very angry at what they see as an incredibly reckless decision to invade Ukraine. While they may be subservient to Putin, they are also rich and potentially quite powerful. Neither public discontent nor oligarch angst will magically bring down the regime. But Putin’s reckless war has eroded two major pillars of support.
Russia’s global pariah status will be hard to undo
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned the Kremlin into a global pariah. Russia’s isolation from Europe will not be easily done without massive concessions from Russia. Evictions from global sport and European competitions add to the internal cost on Putin by wounding Russian pride, which will not be so easy to undo. When the war eventually drifts away from the headlines, Russia will lobby to reduce its isolation and may make some progress. Russia will certainly seek to turn to China and other autocratic states. Indeed, some Middle East states, such as the United Arab Emirates, have already resisted isolating Russia. But Russia’s diplomatic desperation and the reputational costs of partnering with the country means that other nations will seek significant concessions. After 2014, Russia cut gas deals with China, but found that China drove a very hard bargain. Russia can expect China and others to do the same.
Europe will now become a military power
The war has caused a dramatic shift in Europe that will lead to it becoming a major military power. From the Kremlin’s perspective, it has significantly worsened its security environment. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announcement that Germany will create a special fund to spend 100 billion euros on defense and will increase its defense budget to above 2 percent of its GDP amounts to a geopolitical earthquake. German defense spending currently amounts to just 53 billion euro per year. The increase in spending will enable Germany to increase the woeful readiness of its forces and critically acquire new advanced military capabilities. Germany will, in just a few years, likely become a major global military power. As such, so will the European Union. Moreover, the European Union’s provision of 500 million euros of lethal security assistance—an astonishing amount—signals the emergence of the EU institutions themselves as defense actor.
Russia’s invasion has shown the strength of the democratic world
Democracies have stood up and taken incredibly strong and unprecedented steps, including sanctions, military aid, boycotts, and admitting refugees. The world has made clear that reckless, unprovoked invasions of a sovereign state will come with tremendous costs and will backfire. This response will make other countries think long and hard before taking on similar imperial wars of conquest.
Yet, as the West adds pressure, it is essential that it also make clear to Russia that there is a possible way out of this crisis. The sanctions and isolation can be alleviated if Russia takes de-escalatory steps, such as announcing a ceasefire, withdrawing its forces from Ukraine, and pulling back Russian forces from its border with Ukraine. The West should loudly indicate that if Russia takes such positive steps, it will reciprocate. Even if the United States and Europe believe that it is extremely unlikely that Putin will choose the de-escalatory path, it is important that they still offer such a route. Doing so will just further demonstrate that Putin is the aggressor. It will also undermine Putin’s ability to blame the West for Russia’s economic troubles. While Russia’s media environment is highly censored, factual information does penetrate the public consciousness. Making it clear that the West is ready to reduce sanctions if Putin ends the war will weaken the Kremlin’s standing within Russia
No matter how the rest of the conflict in Ukraine plays out, Russia has become mired in a costly and potentially ruinous war that will, at best, leave it weakened and isolated for the foreseeable future.