- Putin’s claims that he will never give up the “spoils” won in Ukraine keep Russia locked in the cage of war and render any notions of peace negotiations unrealistic.
- The degradation of the Russian economy and growing discontent at home casts doubts on the Kremlin’s bravado that the “long war” is proceeding according to plan.
- Russian front-line forces are feeling increasingly demoralized due to heavy losses and Ukrainian gains in the Black Sea and around the Dnipro River.
Official Russian discourse on the war against Ukraine has been blatantly misleading and self-righteous. Last week, President Vladimir Putin added a revealing new bit to Moscow’s war propaganda. He felt it necessary to address and dismiss Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s peace plan discussed at the World Economic Forum held in Davos from January 15 to 19. Previously, the Kremlin had noted that it made no sense to discuss a prospective peace in Ukraine without Russia. The presence of 83 states (China opted not to participate) at the closed-door meeting on Zelenskyy’s “formula” made it necessary for Putin to state Russia’s objections more emphatically (Kommersant, January 16). The Kremlin leader asserted that Russia would never give up its conquests in Ukraine. The official English translation of Putin’s speech used the softer word “gains,” though the original Russian word zavoevaniya literally means “spoils of war” (Kremlin.ru; The Moscow Times, January 16). Due to the Kremlin’s imperial proclivities, Russia has few options in its “long war” against Ukraine and continuing to stand by its territorial gains looks to further diminish Moscow’s regional influence and global standing.
Internationally, such language may end up being seriously counterproductive for the Kremlin. Many countries of the Global South prefer to keep their distance from the European war and even profit from it, but they likely disapprove of any territorial “conquests” (The Moscow Times, January 19). In recent months, China has not actively advertised its own peace plan, presented in February 2023, but professes to maintain support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity (Novaya Gazeta, January 18). Putin’s statement has given more credibility to the warning of Admiral Robert Bauer, chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Military Committee, that the alliance must be prepared for a full-scale war with Russia (RBC, January 19).
Putin’s mention of zavoevaniya was not a slip of the tongue. The Russian president remains attentive to his domestic audience. The Russian population has gradually and steadily moved toward ending the war through peace talks but rejects any retreat or territorial concessions (Forbes.ru, December 27). Putin seeks to build on these ambivalent feelings and transform the majority of Russians into willing accomplices of his crime of aggression, which, as Zelenskyy argued in Davos, has greater goals beyond just annexing five Ukrainian regions (Meduza, January 16). The Kremlin leader suspects that, for many of his “loyal subjects,” problems with heating caused by the degradation of critical infrastructure are far more acute than prospects of “denazification” in Ukraine. Thus, he seeks to re-focus the Russian public’s attention on tangible gains from the Ukrainian battlefield (Forbes.ru, January 16). Putin hopes that the election campaign for the already predetermined elections in March will serve as a means to end the need for broad public approval in continuing the war (Carnegie Politika, January 11).
Moscow’s propaganda is insufficient to ensure this outcome and alleviate public concerns. The Kremlin must move swiftly to suppress any discontent, such as the recent protests in Bashkortostan, and continues to cultivate the illusion that Russia is on track to victory (see EDM, January 17; Svoboda, January 18). Putin places great emphasis on Russian forces’ retaking the initiative on the battlefield, though the series of fruitless attacks on Avdiivka and Ukrainian gains in the Black Sea and around the Dnipro River cast doubts on that assessment (see EDM, January 17; The Insider, January 19). Kyiv may be struggling with a shortage of firepower, but the North Korean artillery shells that the Russian guns are firing have neither the range nor the precision to match Ukraine’s more sophisticated systems (New Voice of Ukraine, January 13).
Russian infantry battalions and air force squadrons are feeling increasingly demoralized by heavy losses on the front (Republic.ru, January 15). The latest shocking air encounter happened on January 14 over the Sea of Azov, when a Russian A-50 early warning and control aircraft was shot down, and a Il-22M command-and-control bomber was seriously damaged (Novaya Gazeta, January 16). Seeking to degrade Ukraine’s air defenses and long-range strike potential, Russian Aerospace Forces have targeted logistic and industrial assets supporting these capabilities, rather than Ukrainian energy infrastructure (Nezavisimoe voennoe obozrenie, January 11). The results have been unimpressive, and Ukrainian drones are trekking further into Russian territory, reaching fuel depots in the neighboring Bryansk region and oil terminals in St. Petersburg and Ust-Luga (Nash Bryansk, January 20; Fontanka.ru, January 18).
The Russian economy continues to struggle with falling investment and rampant inflation. The direct damage Ukrainian strikes have had on the Russian economy may not be that significant. Every hit, nevertheless, adds to the growing problems in Moscow’s energy industry, further exacerbated by serious underinvestment (see EDM, December 4, 2023, January 9; Kommersant, January 15). Putin keeps bragging about the Russian economy’s strong performance, but the surface-level growth (quite possibly exaggerated) has been achieved almost exclusively by pouring heaps of money into the military-industrial complex (Republic.ru, January 9). Many businesses are suffering from extremely high interest rates, and the abundance of money in privileged state corporations has generated heavy inflation (Re: Russia; Levada.ru, January 16).
The US-backed plan for channeling Moscow’s frozen financial assets to rebuilding Ukraine has attracted particular ire from Russian “military-patriotic” commentators (Topwar.ru, January 18). The Kremlin has tried to counter this plan with warnings about undermining the confidence of global investors (RBC, January 11). The looming problem of Russian accountability for the war against Ukraine and the losses suffered by many Western businesses compounds this issue, making it much more serious than a mere legal complication (Izvestia, January 16). Putin is implicitly positioning himself as the only leader capable of protecting Russia from demands for massive reparations, which are certain to cripple its economy and impoverish the middle class (The Moscow Times, January 16). This stance presumably protects the Russian president from possible palace coups, as Russian elites, discontented by the long war, see only greater damage to their interests in challenging Putin (Riddle Russia, January 18).
Neither Russia’s resource-exporting economy nor its corrupt bureaucratic regime were prepared for a large-scale war or maintaining the war effort over the long term. Yet, even in the face of these realities, Moscow appears set on keeping the war going. No cadre reshuffling typical for autocratic regimes in distress has happened, as every bureaucrat and courtier remains committed to delivering on Putin’s orders. This grim and often reluctant acceptance of a lack of alternatives to partaking in the militarization and de-modernization of Russia is quite different from the firm determination in Ukrainian society to defeat the Kremlin’s aggression and assert the country’s European future. The forthcoming discussions on expanding Western support are crucial not only for boosting Ukrainian defiance but also for undercutting Putin’s grasp on the levers that keep Russia locked in the cage of war.