Vladimir Putin casts the war in Ukraine as a watershed when Russia finally stood up to the West – but some within the elite fear he has committed his country to a long and fruitless drain on lives and resources.
When the Russian president ordered troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, he expected to win quickly, earn a place in history alongside the tsars, and teach the United States a lesson about Russia’s revival since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He was wrong. The war has killed or wounded hundreds of thousands; Russia and Russians are vilified in the West as aggressors; and his army now faces a resilient Ukraine backed by an expanding U.S.-led NATO military alliance.
One senior Russian source with knowledge of decision-making said Putin’s hopes of burnishing his reputation had been dashed.
“Ahead, it will be even more difficult and more costly for both Ukraine and Russia,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Economic losses on this scale are not worth a few conquered territories.”
The source said he believed many of the elite shared his view, although to say so publicly would invite swift retribution.
Putin says Moscow is locked in an existential battle with an arrogant West that wants to carve up Russia and its vast resources – a narrative that Ukraine and the West reject.
For all the geopolitical shock waves Putin has caused, he still has no serious rival for power, according to five senior Russian sources close to decision-making. And with all public dissent suppressed, the 70-year-old need not fear the presidential election that looms in March 2024.
The full strategic and economic consequences of the war may reverberate for some time, however.
“I don’t believe in a major offensive, or in the possibility of a Russian victory against the whole civilised world,” said a second senior source close to the Kremlin, who also declined to be named.
The source said Russia was at a disadvantage in both military technology and motivation, but that the war would still continue “for a very long time”.
Even one of the few sceptics whose criticism has been tolerated so far, a pro-war ex-commander of pro-Russian troops in east Ukraine, sees no clear outcome.
“We are in an absolutely paradoxical situation,” said Igor Girkin, who has been convicted by an international court of helping to shoot down a Malaysian airliner over east Ukraine.
“We have a completely incapable leadership formed directly by a president who is unchangeable and to whom there is no alternative. But a change of president would lead to a swift catastrophe.”
To Girkin, that would mean military defeat, civil war, and the subjugation of Russia.
His frustrations centre on the secrecy, poor communication and ineffective command structure that have led to a series of humiliating military defeats at the hands of Russia’s far smaller neighbour.
But beyond the battlefield, Russia must pay for an unexpectedly broad and protracted war while suffering the most severe Western sanctions.
Forced into the unpopular step of mobilising 300,000 young, economically active men last autumn, Putin in the process prompted hundreds of thousands more to flee Russia.
Moscow has lost a major chunk of the European gas market that the Soviet Union and Putin spent decades winning. Russian oil production rose in 2022 but Moscow has announced an output cut for March, most likely in response to a Western cap on the price of its refined products.
Western firms and investors have run for the exit, making Russia court one-time rival China as an investor and buyer of its oil.
Its $2.1 trillion economy – about one-12th the size of the U.S.’s – is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to grow 0.3% this year, far below China and India’s growth rates.
The current account surplus has shrivelled and the budget deficit is widening, despite hefty drawdowns from a rainy-day fund.
“This war is the most consequential activity Putin has ever undertaken and certainly for Russia it is the most consequential gamble since the fall of the Soviet Union,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia specialist at the RAND Corporation who has served in the State Department.
But if Russia’s business leaders – who include many of Putin’s erstwhile KGB colleagues – object to the course of events, they are doing so in private.
THE LONG GAME
Much will depend on the battlefield, where the front line extends 850 km (530 miles). Neither side has air superiority. Both have suffered massive losses.
The West is supplying more advanced – and longer-range – weapons after providing tens of billions of dollars’ worth of guns, shells, missiles and intelligence. But its tolerance of that expense may not be endless.
Putin may be ultimately betting on time, said U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director William Burns, a former ambassador to Moscow who has taken messages from President Joe Biden to Russia.
“The next six months, it seems to me, and it’s our assessment at CIA, are going to be critical,” Burns told the Georgetown School of Foreign Service on Feb. 2.
He said the reality of the battleground would puncture “Putin’s hubris”, by showing him that his army cannot advance, but only lose territory already seized.
Some within the Russian elite beg to differ – and say the West, not Russia, will lose.
“The president believes he can win in Ukraine,” said one senior Russian source. “He, of course, cannot lose the war. Victory will be ours.”
Neither the Kremlin nor the West have specified what victory or defeat in Ukraine would entail, although Moscow remains far short of even controlling the four Ukrainian provinces that it has unilaterally proclaimed part of Russia. Ukraine says it will reclaim every inch of its territory.
And that gives little reason to believe the war will end soon.
“Putin will remain in power until the end, unless he dies or there is a coup – and neither looks likely right now,” said a senior Western diplomat.
“Putin cannot win the war, but he knows he cannot lose.”