Russia’s military performance in Ukraine has become a global embarrassment. President Vladimir Putin’s new plan to ship thousands of barely-trained Russian civilians to the front lines is a sign that his army is taking a beating.
Western military analysts are astonished at the incompetence of a military they once considered fearsome. The decision could even bring down Putin himself.
Yet Russia remains far from beaten. Putin’s recent moves are likely to prolong the war and intensify the turmoil it is causing, in Ukraine and beyond. Energy markets will remain turbulent for months or years.
Ukraine’s need for western aid could easily stretch to 2024 and add up to hundreds of billions of dollars. Voters in Europe and the United States may find their patience tested by an open-ended tab for a war with no end in sight, precisely the backlash Putin hopes to generate.
The risk of a Russian nuclear strike could grow if Putin becomes truly desperate.
All the stakes are raised
On Friday, Putin announced the “annexation” of four regions of Ukraine occupied by Russian troops, an illegal land grab meant to cement Russia’s military gains. Putin now says any attack on those regions is an attack on Russia itself, which some analysts view as a pretext for claiming western nations aiding Ukraine are in fact waging war against Russia.
This follows Putin’s move to “mobilize” several hundred thousand civilian men, to reinforce depleted units losing ground, troops, and materiel to Ukraine’s armed forces. Together, these developments constitute a dramatic escalation by Putin, who is now risking further global condemnation and revolts at home by Russian families who must now bear the direct cost of his war.
“Once you mobilize the public, once you fully commit your regime to the war, which he has done, he's essentially raised all the stakes,” Russia analyst Michael Kofman of research group CNA said on a Sept. 26 podcast. “These are two points of no return. It can dramatically extend Russia’s ability to sustain this war.”
Putin thinks time is on his side because Ukraine’s allies will tire of providing aid and dealing with collateral damage such as the exorbitant cost of natural gas in Europe, now that Russia has ceased most shipments to its former customers there.
Putin could be wrong about that, just as he was wrong about the quick victory he expected after Russian forces invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Even with a poor forecasting record, however, Putin can still cause havoc that reverberates far beyond Ukraine.
Point of no return
Putin seems to be the lead suspect in the mysterious explosions that ruptured the underwater Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines meant to carry gas from Russia to Germany. Transport of gas through the pipelines had been halted, but the pipes were still full of gas, which has now leached into the Baltic Sea.
Those pipelines represent critical infrastructure, raising the risk that Putin could attack other energy facilities, such as liquified natural gas import terminals in Europe. The NATO military alliance has suggested it will retaliate for the pipeline attacks, assuming it can finger the perpetrator.
“European energy infrastructure is vulnerable,” Emily Holland, a professor at the Naval War College, tweeted on Sept. 27. One fresh worry is a Russian attack on a brand-new pipeline that moves natural gas from Norway to Poland, via the Baltic Sea.
The attacks on the Nord Stream pipes also suggest there will be no resumption of Russian gas shipments to Europe, even when the Ukraine war is over.
“The Europe-Russia energy bridge is dead,” Holland wrote. “No going back. This will have huge economic and societal impacts.”
'Huge economic and societal impacts'
Ukraine’s military has made impressive gains on the ground during the last several weeks, and now seems poised to capture the key logistical hub of Lyman, where they’ve encircled some 5,000 Russian troops. Military analysts speculate that Putin has forbidden his forces in Ukraine from retreating, even if it means capture or destruction.
Newly mobilized replacement troops—barely trained, poorly equipped, and in some cases instructed to purchase their own gear—won’t do much if anything to stop Ukraine’s momentum in that area.
But Russian defenses are stouter farther east in Ukraine, closer to Russia’s border. In southeast Ukraine, near the regional capital of Kherson, Ukraine’s military has made much slower progress against heavily fortified Russian lines. Russia’s mobilization of new troops is likely to continue for months, which will eventually boost the combat capabilities of units that have taken heavy casualties.
Russia’s bogus annexation of Ukrainian territory slashes the chance of a negotiated end to the war since there’s no way Ukraine will agree to terms that include a change to its borders. On Sept. 30, Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky said his nation was filing an expedited application to join NATO, which would be intolerable to Russia.
NATO may not vote to accept Ukraine, but Zelensky’s bid for admission reflects burnt bridges between the two warring nations.
Putin, meanwhile, continues to threaten the possible use of nuclear weapons, hinting that an attack on its newly obtained territory could be the trigger. Investing firm Raymond James told clients that the use of nukes remains unlikely, but that “the risk of a crisis scenario that could threaten neighboring NATO nations in the near-term is likely trending upward.”
Ukraine’s allies have provided more than $100 billion in aid since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, including about $17 billion from the United States, the lead donor. The United States is now pledging weapons that won’t arrive in Ukraine until 2023 and 2024.
The Soviet Union’s foray into Afghanistan lasted for nearly 10 years, so it doesn’t seem misguided to plan for several more years of war in Ukraine. Putin has signaled he's willing to pay the prices, which means Ukraine and its allies must also.