Russia aims to outsuffer Ukraine and the West in a protracted conflict
More than a year after the start of invasion of Ukraine, Russia is yet to achieve any of the strategic objectives but continues to pursue them. The initial plan to overwhelm Kyiv in a victorious blitzkrieg did not work out, so Russia resorted to additional measures – announced mobilisation and introduced martial law in certain areas of its territory, while the country’s economy, state apparatus, and society are being gradually subordinated to the war effort.
Although unable to gain advantage, Russia – or, namely, president Putin – wants to keep on waging war and pushes the false narrative that the West is to blame for the conflict. Russia is not willing to give up its strategic goal to destroy Ukraine’s sovereignty, and therefore, refuses any options for constructive dialogue and a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
Mobilisation efforts allow Russia to replenish its battlefield losses and assign personnel to newly created units on the frontline. Political-military leadership has announced a serious increase in the size of the Armed Forces: in 2023, it is to surpass 2 million and will continue to grow in the future. In December 2022, Russia’s Ministry of Defence announced a plan to change its force posture in the Western strategic direction by introducing a large-scale reform in the Armed Forces. Minister Sergey Shoigu declared ambitions to expand the Armed Forces by additional 350,000 troops. According to the plan, three new motor rifle divisions will be established and seven brigades will be enlarged to division size units, roughly tripling their size. It is assessed that these and other reforms would increase the number of military personnel, armament, and combat equipment units in the Western Military District by 30 to 50 percent. As these changes are envisioned in the long term, they will not affect the current combat actions in Ukraine. In addition, Shoigu announced plans to stage strategic military exercise Zapad in 2023 – two years ahead of schedule. This shows that Russia is adapting its Armed Forces to be better fit for an extended confrontation with the West and intensifying its regional deterrence efforts due to anticipated Swedish and Finnish membership in NATO. Russia does not give up its aims to continue increasing military capabilities despite losses incurred in Ukraine.
Russia is likely preparing itself for a protracted conflict, no matter what the cost. Defence spending is prioritised over all the other budget expenditures necessary to solve mounting domestic problems. Even under sanctions, Russia increased the official war spending by 30 percent last year. In 2023, the cost is estimated to reach five trillion roubles (66 billion euros), in fact, with all secret allocations the cost of war is assessed to be much higher.
The sanctions have starved the Russian military industry of foreign electronic components needed to produce, modernize, or repair sophisticated equipment such as missiles or armour. Even lack of more basic parts is becoming a limiting factor, since Russia has already turned to its small group of foreign supporters (Iran, North Korea, or China) to ask for ammunitions but with varying degrees of success.
In order to escape growing isolation, Russia has been looking for alternative partners, but this search has had limited success so far. Countries that are willing to continue buying energy resources from Russia, such as China, India or Russia’s allies in Central Asia, signal their disapproval of the continuing aggression against Ukraine. The circle of Russian supporters is limited to its long-term partners or marginal outsiders of the international community. Russia will look for ways to bring together an anti-Western coalition, but these efforts highly likely will not live up to Moscow’s expectations.
Russia’s stubbornness to continue the war demonstrates its willingness to suffer more political or economic damage than previously assessed. In order to prevent imaginary threats to its national security or territorial integrity, Moscow is ready to sacrifice the remains of its international reputation, economic stability, and human lives. Although the sanctions are effective in limiting Russia’s growth, the mounting cost of war will be financed without any regard to worsening welfare of its people.
When conventional military or diplomatic measures fail, Russia often resorts to nuclear blackmail. Threats to use nuclear weapons or actions that put nuclear power plants in danger are designed to send a twofold message. For the domestic audience, it serves as a pretext to strengthen the narrative of Russia as a country under existential threat. For Western audiences, the Kremlin thus signals its willingness to deter any Western support to Ukraine.
PLANNED REFORMS IN THE RUSSIAN ARMED FORCES’ GROUND COMPONENT IN THE WESTERN STRATEGIC DIRECTION