Reviews | Putin’s long game in Ukraine could falter

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

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

This threat of ever-increasing pressure on the Russian economy was underscored by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on April 25: “We want to see Russia weakened to the point that it cannot do the kind of things she did by invading Ukraine. Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks in similar terms about winning a “very protracted” conflict that could last for years.

But the West has never been very good at strategic patience. And you can sense the concern of American and European officials this summer that the Russians, accustomed to suffering, could wait for us on the battlefield in Ukraine and escape sanctions at home. The longer the war lasts, the better Russia’s chances will be, according to this increasingly popular assessment. The West, it seems, is playing its best for a bloody stalemate.

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So how could the West reverse the pessimism of July so that in winter it is Russia that feels the cold rather than Ukraine? The wisest response is to apply these economic sanctions so that they grip Russia like a steel vise. This will aggravate Russia’s greatest strategic weakness: its forces are stretched very thin over a vast terrain.

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

“We’re also playing the long game,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told me Thursday. The United States has assembled a coalition of three dozen countries to back the sanctions, she noted, with this satisfying result: Semiconductor exports to Russia have fallen 74% from a year ago. a year. “You can’t sustain a modern army without semiconductors,” Raimondo observed.

Due to high energy prices, Russia still has liquidity. But it is increasingly difficult for Moscow to buy what it needs because of Western export controls. A senior Commerce Department official told me that U.S. exports to Russia of prohibited goods — basically anything needed for the Russian military, tech companies, or the energy sector — are down 95%, 9% in value compared to a year ago.

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

There is replacement by shell companies and corrupt intermediaries, but it is less than expected. “We haven’t seen any country try to circumvent our export controls, including China and Iran,” Raimondo told me.

Foreign support for Russian technology and communications companies is gradually evaporating. Ericsson and Nokia have reduced their operations there; more surprisingly, so does Chinese mobile phone giant Huawei. Microsoft isn’t just shutting down its operations in Russia; it is actively working to subvert Russian cyberattacks.

The Russian army is rapidly losing equipment and replacements will not be easy. According to published Ukrainian reports (hardly unbiased but noteworthy), Russia halted or limited tank production at Uralvagonzavod Corporation and the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant, and it stopped surface-to-air missile production at Ulyanovsk Mechanical Plant. Major Russian shipyards were also affected.

The sanctions “virtually broke all the logistics of our country”, according to Russian Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev. Take aviation: The United States and Europe have banned parts or services for the several hundred Boeing and Airbus planes operating in Russia, forcing Russian airlines to drastically reduce flights and cannibalize their fleets. A European Union aviation regulator said last month he was “very concerned” about the safety of such Western planes in Russia.

Let’s imagine that somehow, despite the sanctions, Russia staggers in its bloody assault on Ukraine. Then 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 his reckless and illegal war in Ukraine, Putin stripped forces from the Far East, the Baltic, the vast belly that borders South Asia. He has a country that is slowly collapsing and too few people to protect it.

Putin plays his hand boldly. But he holds fewer high cards than it looks.

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