Russia’s Coming Great Power Struggle

On Monday, all eyes were on Red Square for the annual May 9 victory day celebration to see what Vladimir Putin would do. The answer was not much. Instead of mobilizing the country for total war against Ukraine or declaring some sort of Potemkin victory, Putin stayed the course. This is not because the current trajectory of Russia’s operation in Ukraine is working as planned. What has become apparent in the war in Ukraine, especially since Russia gave up its offensive against Kyiv, is that there is a gap between Russia’s grandiose geopolitical objectives and its capacity to deliver.

In the case of Ukraine, escalating the conflict might turn the war in Putin’s favor, but mass mobilization would not guarantee success in the battlefield. It could also lead to intense public backlash, putting his regime at risk. Thus, the two defining obsessions of the Putin era—regime survival and Russia’s geopolitical might—are in tension. As sanctions take their toll and battlefield losses mount, the gap between Putin’s ambitions and Russia’s capacity is likely to grow. As a leader obsessed with geopolitics, Putin will inevitably engage in a desperate scramble to maintain Russia’s great power status, but he will find it incredibly difficult in the weeks, months, and years ahead to do so.

The basic problem for Putin is that Western strategy to weaken Russia is working better than anyone could have expected. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s comment may have overstepped when he bluntly said, “We want to see Russia weakened.” But underlying Austin’s comments is a clear sense of confidence that the strategy is clearly working.

The initial thrust of this strategy began on the economic front with sanctions. The original assumption behind sanctions was not that they would get Putin to end the war. Banks do not stop tanks, after all. But instead, by imposing significant medium- to long-term costs on Russia, such that in the next 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years, the Russian economy would be severely weakened, the Kremlin would be forced into a tough juggling act between guns (geopolitical ambition) or butter (domestic tranquility). What has surprised U.S. policymakers is the speed and intensity through which the U.S. and European public have demanded stronger actions. European outrage has led to a far stronger sanctions response than imagined possible before the war. Europe has demonstrated it is willing to bear substantial economic costs to weaken Russia and is now moving at an incredible pace to decouple from Russia, now targeting Russian oil.

This is having a devastating impact on Russia’s economy. The Russian Central Bank survey reveals expectations of soaring inflation, economic contraction, and no growth. Furthermore, Russia is facing a massive brain drain as up to 200,000 Russians may have left the country by the second week of March alone. It has also suffered substantial damage to its burgeoning tech industry, as it lost access to some overseas markets and may lose up to 170,000 tech workers.

The biggest surprise, however, is the performance of Ukraine on the battlefield, the ineptitude of Russia’s military, and the game-changing efficacy Western security assistance. Russia’s forces have suffered shocking losses. The Pentagon estimates that Russia has lost around 25 percent of the combat power it had used to invade Ukraine, with the UK defense minister claiming that Russia suffered losses of 15,000 in personnel and over 2,500 in large equipment. If the war ended tomorrow, Russia would have considerable costs to recapitalize its forces—build more tanks and Kalibr cruise missile systems, as well as train new personnel—not to mention seek to address the deficiencies exposed in the war. But the war is not going to end tomorrow, and the long-term costs to Russia will grow.

Thus, Russia finds itself in a huge hole. But to make matters much worse for the Kremlin, the export controls—one of the most innovative aspects of the sanctions—is just starting to bite. The export controls are designed to restrict commercial exports to Russia of advanced technology. This raises major questions for the Kremlin. For instance, how will Russia be able to rebuild its military when it cannot buy semiconductors to build new Kalibr cruise missiles? When a Western component used to manufacture Russian tanks breaks, will Russia be able to get another? If not, can it build its own? According to the White House, two major plants that specialize in manufacturing and repair of tanks—Uralvagonzavod Corporation and the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant—have suspended their work due to the lack of foreign components.

There is no doubt that Russia will aggressively pursue work-arounds. Sanctions evasion will be a nonstop pursuit, aided by China, as well as other complicit countries. Russia will use “burner banks” that pop up to handle a transaction, get sanctioned, and go away. It will use shell companies, smugglers, and the criminal underworld to gain access to materials. It will, in short, act like North Korea. But while this type of smuggling can support a bespoke missile development operation, it is highly uncertain whether this will suffice to keep the Russian defense industrial sector humming. Nevertheless, even if Russia finds a way, acquiring items through the black market and through convoluted means will add substantial costs, further depleting Russia’s economic coffers.

Russia will seek to turn to domestic production, pursuing classic import substitution, hoping domestic production will replace imported goods. This could work in some areas, but items like semiconductors cannot just be conjured out of thin air, especially when Russia’s knowledge workers have fled in droves. Even if Russia can replace imported parts domestically, this will still add costs and is unlikely to result in the same level of quality of imported goods. Whether export controls succeed in starving Russia of the technology and machinery necessary to rebuild its military is of immense geopolitical importance.

Russia’s defense industrial prowess is key to its foreign policy and undergirds its relationships with countries across the globe. This is especially true for a country like India. India is dependent on the Russian arms industry and has $8 billion worth of outstanding military orders from Russia, and also needs a continuous supply of spare parts and components. Indian officials said they expect some short-term delays in the “S-400 Triumf missile systems, Grigorovich-class stealth frigates, and Kalashnikov AK 203-7.62x39mm assault rifles, as well as spares supplies for Kilo-class submarines, MiG-29 fighters, and Kamov Mi-17 military transport helicopters. . . . India today imports over 10,000 types of spares and line replacement units worth over $500 million annually from Russia.” Will Russia be able to meet its deliveries? If Russia can’t deliver, India will have to scramble, increasingly turning to U.S., European, and Asian partners for alternatives. But beyond India, Russia’s defense industrial troubles could severely impact its foreign policy with countries around the world. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam is reliant on Russia’s defense industry and could be further alienated by closer Sino-Russian relations. Furthermore, 50 percent of Africa’s defense industrial imports come from Russia.

Thus, if sanctions and export restrictions work as expected, Putin will have to scramble to maintain Russia’s global standing. The most direct way for Putin to assert Russia’s strength and deter the West from taking advantage of a militarily weakened Russia, is nuclear saber rattling. This is already evident in loose talk from Russian officials, leading to understandable concerns about risks of nuclear escalation. Reviving such concerns in the West could be a boon to a Kremlin, as it might foster prestige-building Cold War-era nuclear talks or help constrain Western belligerence.

Russia could also continue to look to asymmetric means to hit back and impose costs on the West. Cyberattacks, political influence and disinformation campaigns, money laundering and corruption efforts are few of the many tools in its toolbox. However, its effectiveness has eroded somewhat, as Russia has lost the element of surprise. The United States and Europe have obsessively studied Russia’s active measures campaigns since 2016. Russian disinformation campaigns on the war in Ukraine have had little impact on the West. Instead, it is the United States, with its aggressive disclosures of intelligence, and Ukraine, with Zelensky filming cell phone videos and posting Ukrainian battlefield successes on social media, that have been winning the information war.

Russian political influencing efforts will also prove increasingly difficult. Putin-friendly politicians, from Marine Le Pen in France to Matteo Salvini in Italy, have sought to create their distance. Russia can still attempt at the margins to impact politics, corrupting politicians or secretly donating or funding political campaigns. But U.S. and European intelligence and law enforcement are focused on this threat. Additionally, the massive wealth and influence of Russian oligarchs, which has had a corrosive impact on their democratic hosts, has been aggressively uprooted. Russia has thus lost one of its most important soft power tools. The end result is that the West is both on guard and has built up a degree of resilience.

Cyberattacks against the West are another potential option for Putin. There are significant concerns about the vulnerability of critical infrastructure in the United States to Russian cyberattacks. But attacks on critical infrastructure, such as the May 2021 Colonial Pipeline attack, allegedly by a nominally private Russian actors, also carry greater risks for the Kremlin now. While the Biden administration decided to prioritize summitry with Putin rather than responding in kind, a Russian cyberattack in this environment would likely be treated far differently, possibly resulting in a U.S. cyber response against Russian infrastructure or expanding direct involvement in Ukraine. A vulnerable Russia, with its hands full in eastern Ukraine, will likely be nervous about provoking an escalatory spiral.

Russia is thus in a real geopolitical bind. Putin will scramble to maintain Russia’s geopolitical standing, but the options in front of him may be limited. However, the success of Western strategy also could plant the seeds of its own failure by creating a sense that Russia poses less of a threat, prompting focus to shift elsewhere.

The United States would be ill-advised to underestimate Russia’s resilience as President Obama did in 2014 when he declared Russia simply a “regional power.” Given Russia’s geographic size, military and nuclear capacity, natural resources, and the ingenuity of its people, it is hard for Russia to not be a great power. Not a lot has to go right for Putin to demonstrate Russia’s global clout. The war in Ukraine could move in Russia’s direction or a possible negotiated settlement may present a path for Moscow to get out from under sanctions. China or other autocratic states in the Middle East or elsewhere may come to Russia’s aid. Russia will also inevitably find new and creative ways to make its influence felt and hit back at the West. Additionally, Russia will expect the impact of sanctions and export controls to fade over time without a concerted effort to monitor, update, and maintain sanctions. Maintaining restrictions will thus require enormous bureaucratic attention and energy, as well as extensive multilateral coordination, not just in 2022 but in the years ahead.

Putin will thus bank on the West lacking the focus and energy to maintain the pressure. It is up to the West to prove him wrong.

Max Bergmann is director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Max Bergmann
Director, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program and Stuart Center