“Don’t write off Russia” — that was the muttered warning of a European diplomat, with long experience in Moscow. It is a fair point. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has gone badly wrong. But Russia remains a huge country, with abundant resources and a ruthless, brutal government.
Ukraine’s intelligence services think that further conscription drives may allow Russia to deploy an army of 2mn for a renewed offensive later this year. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently warned that Moscow might soon make a fresh attempt to capture Kyiv.
But even a battlefield breakthrough could not deliver Russia a lasting victory. Imagine that Putin’s forces achieved some kind of malign miracle, defeated Ukraine and overthrew the Zelenskyy government. What then?
The reality is that a wounded and isolated Russia would then be stuck in a decades-long guerrilla war that would make Afghanistan look like a picnic. Occupying forces or a collaborationist government in Kyiv would be under constant attack. “Victory” would lock Russia into a long-term disaster.
Putin and his allies continue to take comfort from history. Russia suffered terrible defeats at the hands of Napoleon and Hitler — but ultimately prevailed. But those wars were defensive. Knowing that they had nowhere to retreat, the Russians fought to the bitter end. This time it is the Ukrainians who are defending their homeland.
In previous great wars, Russia was also part of a larger European coalition. But now, as Dmitri Trenin, a pro-Kremlin strategist, observed in a recent article: “For the first time in Russian history, Russia doesn’t have any allies in the west.” In fact, the anti-Russia coalition extends well beyond Europe. As Trenin gloomily adds: “The degree of cohesion among English-speaking countries, Europe and Asian allies around the United States has reached previously unseen levels.”
In this new situation, Russia is left looking to Asia and Africa for friends. The Kremlin takes some comfort in the fact that leading countries of the “global south” — such as China, India, South Africa and Indonesia — have not joined in the international sanctions effort aimed at Russia. But, with the exception of Iran, these countries have not provided Russia with military support to match the western weaponry pouring into Ukraine.
A reliance on the global south involves a reorientation of the Russian economy, which for the past 30 years has been built primarily on energy exports to Europe. Russia is also now dangerously dependent on China.
How did Putin get his country into this mess? The roots of the problem are his failure to accept the loss of great-power status, something other European states had already faced up to. (Some might say Brexit shows that Britain is not quite there yet. But, as acts of self-harm go, it is nothing compared to what Putin has done to Russia. The catastrophic equivalent would have been a British invasion of Ireland.)
The European order that Putin looks back to nostalgically was built around great-power rivalry. Unable to comprehend a new system — based on co-operation among states, under the umbrellas of the EU and Nato — Putin has ended up isolating Russia from the entire European continent. As Angela Stent of Georgetown University puts it, “Putin has closed the window on Europe that was opened by Peter the Great” in the 1700s.
If Putin had been willing to accept that Russia was permanently in the tier below the superpowers, there would have been opportunities for Russian statecraft to play the role of a balancing middle power. Instead Putin over-reached in Ukraine. The ironic consequence is that Russia is likely to emerge from this war even further diminished as a global power.
Russia’s desperate situation has led to a certain nihilism among some of the country’s elite, with television talking heads fantasizing out loud about nuclear war and Armageddon. Russian strategists who make the argument for fighting on increasingly do so not because they see a realistic prospect of victory, but because defeat is too hard to contemplate. In his bleak article, Trenin, a former Russian military intelligence colonel and then director of the now-closed Carnegie Moscow Center, argues that “while a theoretical path to surrender exists” for Russia, this option is unacceptable because it would entail “national catastrophe , probable chaos and an unconditional loss of sovereignty”.
Fear of that outcome leads Trenin to conclude that Russia has no choice but to fight on as a “warrior country, defending its sovereignty and integrity”, even though this will require “great sacrifices” over “many years”. Following this bloody path, Trenin argues, will require “the unconditional patriotism of the elite”.
But this is a very peculiar definition of patriotism. What patriotic Russian would want to continue sending his fellow countrymen to their deaths in a brutal war of aggression that is making the country poorer, more isolated, more dictatorial and more reviled around the world?
The true Russian patriots are those — many of them in jail or in exile — who are determined to stop Putin and his war. Only when that happens will Russia have a chance of rebuilding its moral, economic and international status.