Opinion | Putin’s long struggle in Ukraine may falter


President Vladimir Putin is betting that a long war in Ukraine will exhaust his opponents faster than Russia. He may be right, but there are ways for the United States and its allies to confuse this strategy.

The West’s trump card is its fundamental economic strength – if it can evoke the will to use it. President Biden said on February 24, the day the war began, that he would “impose serious costs on the Russian economy, both immediately and over time. … We will impair their ability to compete in a 21st century high-tech economy.” . “

This threat of ever-increasing pressure on Russia’s economy was emphasized by Defense Minister Lloyd Austin on April 25: “We want to see Russia weakened to such an extent that it cannot do the kind of thing it has done by invading Ukraine. . ”Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks in similar terms about winning a” very long-lasting “conflict that could last for years.

But the West has never been particularly good at strategic patience. And you can sense the concern among US and European officials this summer that the Russians, who have been suffering, will be able to wait for us on the battlefield in Ukraine and to evade sanctions at home. The longer the war lasts, the better Russia’s chances are, according to this increasingly widespread assessment. The West, it seems, is playing for a bloody stalemate, at best.

So how could the West reverse the pessimism in July so that at winter time it is Russia that feels the cold instead of Ukraine? The wisest answer is to enforce these economic sanctions so that they seize Russia like a vice of steel. It will reinforce Russia’s greatest strategic weakness: that its forces are stretched very thin over a vast terrain.

The best evidence that sanctions work, albeit slowly, comes from Russian officials themselves. “The situation is not easy,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov acknowledged last month. Herman Gref, head of Sberbank, Russia’s largest, warned: “We may need about a decade to return [the] economy to 2021 levels. “He recently told reporters that cargo shipments to Russia had increased sixfold due to Western sanctions.

“We are also playing the long game,” Trade Minister Gina Raimondo told me on Thursday. The United States gathered a coalition of three dozen countries to support the sanctions, she noted, with this satisfactory result: Exports of semiconductors to Russia have fallen 74 percent compared to a year ago. “You can not maintain a modern military without semiconductors,” Raimondo remarked.

Due to high energy prices, Russia still has cash. But it will be harder for Moscow to buy what it needs because of Western export controls. A senior Department of Commerce official told me that U.S. exports to Russia of banned products – pretty much everything needed for the Russian military, technology companies or energy sector – have fallen 95.9 percent in value compared to a year ago.

The Biden administration may be overly optimistic about the effect of sanctions. But a study last month by the Peterson Institute for International Economics shows significant effect. Using export data from 54 countries (which accounted for 90 percent of Russia’s imports last year), they found that the sanctioning countries’ exports to Russia have fallen 60 percent since the second half of 2021 – and that exports from non-sanctioning countries has fallen by 40 percent.

There is some fulfillment through front companies and corrupt intermediaries, but it is less than expected. “We have not seen any attempt by any country to put an end to our export controls, including China and Iran,” Raimondo told me.

Foreign aid to Russian technology and communications companies is gradually evaporating. Ericsson and Nokia have curtailed operations there; more surprisingly, the same has the Chinese mobile phone giant Huawei. Microsoft is not just stopping its business in Russia; it is actively working to undermine Russian cyber attacks.

The Russian military is rapidly losing equipment and replacements are not easy. According to published Ukrainian reports (hardly impartial, but worth noting), Russia has stopped or limited tank production at the Uralvagonzavod Corporation and at the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant, and it has stopped the production of surface-to-air missiles at the Ulyanovsk Mechanical Plant. Large Russian shipyards have also been hit.

Sanctions “have virtually broken all logistics in our country,” according to Russian Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev. Take aviation: The United States and Europe have banned parts or services for the hundreds of Boeing and Airbus jets operating in Russia, forcing Russian airlines to severely restrict flights and cannibalize their fleets. An EU aviation regulator said last month that he was “very concerned” about the safety of these western jets in Russia.

Let us imagine that Russia somehow, despite the sanctions, falters further with its bloody attack on Ukraine. So what? To think about Putin’s potential problems, just look at a map. Russia is by far the largest country in the world. To support its ruthless, illegal war in Ukraine, Putin has removed forces from the Far East, the Baltic Sea, the huge abdomen bordering South Asia. He has a country that is in slow motion collapse and too few people to protect it.

Putin boldly plays his hand. But he has fewer high cards than it seems.

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