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What the Prospect of a Prolonged War Means for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus

360 degrees, 20.02.2023 Forschungsgebiete

One year after the massive attack on Ukraine, the Kremlin is sticking to its maximum goals, a negotiated settlement is not in sight. How a prolonged war can affect Russia, Ukraine and Belarus is analysed in this 360 degrees. Margarete Klein coordinated the publication.

Why a Protracted War Is Likely

Russia is currently far from achieving its declared war aims in Ukraine. Moscow’s goals are not limited to conquering the territories that it illegally annexed in September. The Kremlin remains determined to bring Kyiv under its control. For Putin, it is unacceptable that Ukraine stays independent, recovers economically and strengthens itself with Western help against the existential threat from Russia. Because Russia currently does not have the military means to seize Kyiv, it is trying to destabilize Ukraine’s resistance by terrorizing the civilian population with missile attacks. At the same time, it wants to undermine the West’s economic and military support for Ukraine with escalation threats. So far, however, neither strategy has proved successful.

Back home, a continuation of the war is not yet threatening to the Russian regime, despite the immense human and economic cost. For Putin’s grip on power, continuing may even be less risky than seeking a ceasefire before Kyiv is under Russian control. Russia has enough resources to launch attacks on Ukraine for years. The alleged external threat also helps to legitimize Putin’s rule and allows for much harsher repressions.

In view of Russia’s war aims, Ukraine has no choice but to continue defending itself. The government in Kyiv has few illusions about a negotiated peace with Putin. It is supported by an overwhelming majority of the population, not least due to the experience of Bucha and other places, where the disastrous consequences of Russian occupation came to light. Moreover, the Ukrainian army has shown time and again that it can push back the Russian forces.

The success of Ukraine’s self-defence has also become indispensable for the West. A looming Ukrainian defeat could plunge both NATO and the EU into a deep crisis. Even if the US elections in 2024 are a factor of uncertainty, there is no sign of Western backing for Ukraine weakening. For one thing, the actual cost of the support is small relative to the size of Western economies. For another, solidarity for Ukraine is still strong in most parts of Western societies.

Russia’s Armed Forces at War: Personnel Increases, Proxies and the Threat of Escalation

Russia’s leadership is preparing the armed forces for a prolonged war in Ukraine. The partial mobilisation of September 2022 served to compensate for the high personnel losses in Russia’s own army, to avoid further setbacks like in Kherson and to build up capabilities for a new offensive. In contrast, the proposals presented by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu on 21 December 2022 refer to a longer time horizon. The nominal strength of the armed forces is to increase to 1.5 million soldiers and the number of contract soldiers to 695,000; in addition, two divisions are to be newly created on occupied Ukrainian territory and seven brigades in Russia are to be converted into divisions. In parallel, the budget planning for 2023 provides for a massive increase in defence spending.

The increase in personnel in the armed forces will only be possible to implement by means of state pressure. Already, almost all reasons for deferring military service have been abolished, and the age limit for conscription is to be raised to thirty. In addition, an extension of compulsory military service and a second wave of mobilisation are being discussed. Russia’s armed forces are thus returning to the traditional concept of mass; at the same time, they will gain combat experience.

The more the war develops into a battle of attrition, the greater the role of formally non-state “proxies” – such as the mercenary group “Wagner” – is likely to become. They provide cannon fodder without incurring domestic political costs for the Kremlin, as is the case with fallen soldiers. For political entrepreneurs like Yevgeny Prigozhin, the financier of “Wagner”, the war offers a chance to combine economic gains with political prestige. The relationship between proxies and regular armed forces is therefore likely to be increasingly characterised by competition in addition to cooperation.

Russia’s warfare against Ukraine is expected to become more brutal for two reasons. As long as the intended increase in personnel is not realised, the armed forces will increasingly rely on strikes against civilian infrastructure and residential areas as part of the attrition strategy. At the same time, human rights violations are part of the deliberately promoted image of “Wagner”; the recruitment practice – for example in prisons – does the rest.

Vis-à-vis the West, Moscow will deliberately play on the fear that the war could escalate beyond Ukraine. The main aim here is to discourage the delivery of modern weapons to Kyiv. In addition to nuclear threats, the Kremlin is likely to deliberately rely on spillover effects due to migration and terrorism from crisis regions where “Wagner” is gaining in importance – these are primarily North Africa and the Sahel region.

“Project 2024” – Russia’s Presidential Election in the Shadow of War

Russia is far from achieving its military goals in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the domestic challenges are growing. The regime will hold presidential elections on 17 March 2024 – many of the steps taken in recent years must be seen in this light. Most importantly, Putin pushed through a new constitution in 2020 which allows him to stay in the Kremlin for up to twelve more years. Under the 1993 constitution, 2023 would have been his last year in power.

Last autumn, the Kremlin postponed some of Putin’s important public appearances, probably due to uncertainty about developments. Now the annual address to the Federal Assembly has been announced for 21 February, the anniversary of the “recognition” of the “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics”. Putin already set the tone on New Year’s Eve: persevere, be ready to sacrifice, believe in the leader.

Putin has little room for manoeuvre. He can hardly afford not to run in the election – such a sign of weakness could inflame criticism of his warfare and turn into a domestic trap. The same applies to a postponement of the election. This option cannot be ruled out entirely. But the Kremlin will try to avoid it in order not to admit that they are not in full control of the military situation. A “quick victory” could have been useful for the 2024 election, but the ongoing war is a heavy liability. The regional elections on 10 September 2023 will be a litmus test for the Kremlin’s “Project 2024”. At the moment, everything indicates that the domestic political strategists are assuming there will be an “election campaign in wartime”.

Meanwhile, Russian society remains atomised and apathetic. Many politically active people have left the country, and more will follow. Russia has turned into a dictatorship with fascist and totalitarian tendencies after 24 February 2022. It is unrealistic to expect changes from below under such conditions. Putin recently made personnel changes in the command structures of the armed forces and put Yevgeny Prigozhin, financier of the mercenary group “Wagner”, in his place. He still seems to be able to do this without much resistance. Elites breaking away from the centre of power could create spaces for social protest, but this is not very likely in 2023. Everything continues to depend on the course of the war. Military advances by Ukraine could accelerate domestic change in Russia.

The Longer the War Lasts, the Heavier the Sanctions Weigh

Russia’s economic crisis in 2022 was less severe than expected. Although gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 6 per cent during the first months of sanctions, it subsequently recovered and was only 5 per cent below the previous year’s level in December. The booming arms industry was an important factor in this. Also, Russia’s oil exports remained strong, as they were hardly targeted by sanctions until the EU import embargo came into force in December 2022. Surging export revenues helped Russia to cushion the impact of sanctions and to rebuild many supply chains with Chinese firms.

The war against Ukraine is proving to be extremely costly for the Russian state budget. In 2022, Russian budget spending totalled 31.1 trillion roubles instead of the planned 23.7 trillion. Budget revenues increased as well. The high gas prices in Europe, which Gazprom caused by throttling its supply, led to huge windfall profits. This allowed for a moderate deficit of 2.3 per cent of GDP last year.

However, the outlook for 2023 is already much different. Gas revenues from Europe have largely dried up. Sanctions are forcing Russia to sell its oil with large discounts. So far, the rising deficits are not threatening for the Kremlin. The finance ministry could cope with much larger shortfalls in the budget for two to three years by using up the welfare fund and issuing more government bonds. The last resort would be money printing, which could keep the budget afloat a little longer. But this would most likely lead to high inflation and rouble devaluation, particularly if Russia’s trade balance turns negative.

Sanctions cannot prevent Russia from continuing its war against Ukraine, but they do make warfare more difficult. The stable macroeconomic framework that Putin’s technocrats have built over the past twenty years is still in place. But the first cracks are visible. With each year that passes, the Russian leadership will find it harder to mobilize the resources to continue the attacks on Ukraine. In the longer run, the regime will have to find ways to make the war less costly or intense, if it wants to keep economic problems from turning into instability.

  • Sebastian Hoppe

Russia’s Regions as Pillars of the War Economy

The invasion of Ukraine caught Russia’s regions off guard. Meanwhile, however, the federal subjects have become important pillars of the Kremlin’s war effort. Regional administrations are involved in mobilizing soldiers, organizing civilian and military supplies for the army, and optimizing the war economy. The longer Russia’s assault continues, the more ad hoc measures will become entrenched. The central government has already enacted laws that allow “special measures” to be applied in the regions.

New institutions indicate how relations between the Kremlin and the regions are likely to develop in the future. One such institution is a military council, created by President Vladimir Putin on 21 October 2022, and headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, to coordinate federal and regional activities in support of the war efforts. One can expect more centralized control, direct interventions in the regional economies as well as federal oversight of the regional logistics of the war. In conjunction with the West’s extensive sanctions regime, this will shift the focus of regional administrations, in the long term, away from infrastructural and socioeconomic development toward production for military needs and the repressive safeguarding of political stability. Regions with production capacities and commodity sectors that can serve the war effort could well benefit from this shift. However, many firms are suffering sanctions-related losses that cannot be compensated even by deeper integration into the war economy.

The four Ukrainian territories of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson, whose annexation the Kremlin has proclaimed, are now treated (like the Crimean peninsula annexed in 2014) as regular Russian regions. Increasing numbers of bureaucratic personnel, including some from more distant regions of Russia, are therefore involved in administering the occupied territories and supporting the war effort through “working visits”. As a result, thousands of civil servants and their families will come into contact with the reality of the Russian occupation regime. Should Moscow be able to hold these territories in the long term, this will also lead to the gradual normalization of the occupation in regional administrations and societies. As long as the war and thus the Western sanctions persist, Russia’s regions will remain integrated into the country’s increasingly consolidating war economy.

Consolidation and Trauma in Ukrainian Society

The war has welded Ukrainian society together. Surveys show that the vast majority of citizens believe in and work for a Ukrainian victory. They help equip the armed forces, organise housing for internally displaced persons, and distribute humanitarian aid. This often happens spontaneously, on an informal level, and not necessarily in established civil society structures. The vast majority identify strongly with the Ukrainian state and are proud to be Ukrainian.

Nevertheless, the war is accompanied by a number of social problems that will intensify over time. Many citizens are traumatised by their war experiences. In addition, polarisation will probably increase between those living in Russian-occupied territories and those living on territory controlled by Ukraine. Equally difficult is the question of how to deal with those who have supported (or are currently supporting) the Russian occupation forces and are considered collaborators. The line between forced and voluntary collaboration is often blurred.

In addition, there are further fault lines between those who have stayed in their places of residence and those who have fled but are returning. There are also demographic problems associated with their departure, as many well-educated women have gone abroad with their children. There will not only be fewer Ukrainians living in the country, but also distortions in terms of gender, age and level of education.

These are all contextual factors that Germany and other states must take into account when it comes to continued support for and reconstruction of Ukraine, as well as the necessary reforms for its accession to the European Union. On the one hand, there is a highly motivated society with considerable capacities, and on the other hand, a traumatised society where demographics are changing and new cleavages are emerging. Therefore, assistance to the country should include measures concerning social cohesion and mental health. However, Westerners can also learn from the self-sacrifice of the Ukrainian people, who are standing up for their values and making an ongoing contribution to building a resilient state. Even in the event of a prolonged war, it is likely that society’s support for the state and its armed forces will not diminish.

The “New Normality” of Ukrainian Domestic Politics as a Democracy Risk

Ukraine achieved considerable success in the fight against the Russian invasion in the first year of the war. In the process, political institutions, public administration entities and economic actors also demonstrated resilience. Nevertheless, the defensive struggle and martial law influence domestic political conditions. In the political system, a trend towards the dominance of the executive, which President Zelensky had already initiated prior to the Russian invasion, has intensified. Although the parliament fulfils its legislative function, it takes decisions under extreme time pressure and hardly exercises a control function over the government. The parliamentary opposition shrank as pro-Russian parties dissolved or were banned. Former leaders such as ex-President Poroshenko have lost much of their media presence and social importance. Moreover, most of the political spectrum is sticking to the agreement made shortly before the Russian attack to support the Ukrainian president in case of war.

A visible sign of the growing imbalance of power in favour of the president is his domination of the public space and – since the bundling of the most important channels in the so-called telemarathon – above all the television coverage. At the vulnerable point of the political system, the interface between the centre and the regions, dwindling resources and additional levers used by the centre via military administrations are having an impact. Mayors fear that the government could use their moment of weakness to reverse the results of the decentralisation reform. In the shadow of the war, the major reform programme agreed in 2014 hardly matters and corruption remains a major challenge. The government’s National Reconstruction Plan, as well as the announced significant cutbacks in the state apparatus, reveal that President Zelensky continues to think above all in terms of power politics and populism. His vision of Ukrainian democracy remains unclear.

If the war continues, this will have lasting consequences. As long as martial law is in force, no elections will be held in Ukraine. Since the war is still a struggle for national existence for Ukrainians, the special role of the president will continue to enjoy high legitimacy. Internal criticism will probably remain rare. For these reasons, even without the intervention of interested actors, there is a danger that democratisation will suffer setbacks and that the population will become accustomed to the internal political upheavals resulting from the state of war. Without external pressure, this will hamper the implementation of reforms, including those necessary for a possible EU accession process.

Belarus: Sovereignty under Threat

Russia’s attack on Ukraine turned Belarus into a co-aggressor because the country served as a springboard for the Russian military. The EU and the USA reacted by tightening their sanctions against the regime of permanent ruler Alexander Lukashenka. In addition, Belarus abruptly lost the important Ukrainian market, which until then had helped to balance the traditional trade deficit with Russia. The war increased Lukashenka’s dependence on Putin, who had supported him in 2020 during the mass protests against the manipulated presidential elections and thus ensured his political survival. As a consequence, Belarus’ national sovereignty seemed to exist only on paper.

One year after the start of the war, Lukashenka’s regime seems much more stable. The decline in gross domestic product is officially 4.7 per cent, which is less than expected. Lukashenka completely controls the domestic political situation and is successfully pushing ahead with the transformation of his political system, which began with the constitutional referendum on 27 February 2022. The fragile stabilisation can mainly be explained by two factors. First, Lukashenka avoided direct involvement of his army in the fighting – and thus, at least temporarily, the imposition of new Western sanctions. At the same time, Moscow needs Belarusian support, for example in training of recruits, repairs of military technology or production of technical goods that the West no longer supplies. Through the continued presence of the Ukrainian ambassador in Minsk, Lukashenka also preserved chances for a mediating role.

Trench warfare seems to be a quite advantageous scenario for his regime. The West’s attention would be diverted from the growing repression in Belarus, which would make it easier to control the parliamentary and local elections due in 2024. A long war would also weaken Putin’s position in Russia. This could enable Lukashenka to act more self-confident vis-à-vis a possible successor in the Kremlin and continue to profit from the geopolitical East-West confrontation.

The more successful Ukraine is militarily, the more difficult the situation becomes for Lukashenka. Moscow could finally force him to take an active part in the war or seek the annexation of Belarus to Russia as compensation for a looming defeat. A Russian victory, on the other hand, would leave Lukashenka completely at the Kremlin’s mercy. Even the currently unlikely scenario of Russia, Ukraine and the West ending the war through negotiations would be disadvantageous for the excluded Lukashenka, since the Western sanctions against his regime would remain in place. The beneficiary of this outcome would be Russia, not the Belarusian society.

Suggested Citation

Suggested Citation 360 Degrees entire:

Margarete Klein (Coord.), What the Prospect of a Prolonged War Means for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, Berlin: German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), 20.02.2023 (360 Degrees).

Suggested citation of individual 360 Degrees contribution:

Janis Kluge, "Why a Protracted War Is Likely," in Margarete Klein (Coord.), What the Prospect of a Prolonged War Means for Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, Berlin: German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), 20.02.2023 (360 Degrees).