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Russia can’t afford Putin’s war in Ukraine

In launching this conflict, the Russian president has revealed himself to be not only a vicious bully but also a deluded fool.

By Lawrence Freedman

The Russo-Ukrainian War has settled into a pattern of Russian failure to achieve core military objectives, combined with a readiness to inflict death and destruction on the Ukrainian people. While some attacks, such as those on the training base near Lviv on 13 March, have a discernible strategic purpose, most are indiscriminate and, other than vengefulness, their purpose is less clear. They have evidently not made it easier for Russian troops to enter cities. They might be intended to coerce Kyiv into making concessions in the negotiations but the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has not wavered on securing his country’s freedom and sovereignty. It may be that the damage is an end in itself, so that even a free Ukraine is incapacitated. Whatever the purpose, inflicting hurt as a military priority has left Russian war aims even more confused than they were three weeks ago.  

This is particularly important when we consider the south of Ukraine, where Russian forces have more presence and possibly still more military options if they can move from their current positions. This is the area where they might expect to make lasting territorial gains. Yet it is here that their methods have made any gains less sustainable, both economically and politically.  

The relative optimism expressed by both Ukrainian and Russian negotiators about a possible peace deal seems surprising given the state of the war. The best account we have of the state of the negotiations comes from Kommersant (it also fits it with other accounts)and is based on an interview with Mikhail Podolyak, adviser to the head of the Ukrainian president’s office. I want to focus on just one of the issues raised by it.

My interest is in the relevance of the anticipated economic impact of the war on both belligerents to the negotiations. Up to now, the main question has been about whether sanctions and the pressure on the Russian economy will force Putin to abandon his aggression. There is, however, also a postwar issue, which is the cost of reconstruction. Estimates of the impact of the war on Ukraine are already well over $100bn, and this for an economy that also faces a contraction of at least 10 per cent in its economy – and probably more. A recent IMF assessment noted that, in addition to the economically consequential damage to ports and airports, “as of March 6, 202 schools, 34 hospitals, more than 1,500 residential houses including multi-apartment houses, tens of kilometers of roads, and countless objects of critical infrastructures in several Ukrainian cities have been fully or partially destroyed by Russian troops.”

And that was over a week ago. Understandably, Kyiv wants compensation. This is raised in the Kommersant story. According to Podolyak, “compensatory mechanisms should be clearly spelled out: at the expense of what and from what budget all this will be restored. I’m sorry, these are the amounts in billions of dollars if we take a preliminary estimate.”

Yet reparations of this sort – a more than reasonable request – would not only amount to an admission of guilt for the damage caused (Russia ludicrously claims only military targets have been hit), but will be beyond the capacity of the Russian economy, in its enfeebled state, to support.

The costs of the Russian war effort are not as high as those inflicted on Ukraine, and its infrastructure has not been attacked. Nonetheless, war expenditure – lost equipment, fuel, ammo, etc – is still well into the billions of dollars. Looking forward, the most worrying issue for the Kremlin is the isolation of the country’s economy. Since the start of the war the Russian stock market has closed, interest rates have doubled, inflation has shot up, and the value of the rouble has plummeted. One recent estimate suggests that Russia faces a drop-of from 7 per cent to 15 per cent in GDP in 2022. It risks defaulting on its debts.

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Whatever the impact on Russia’s ability to prosecute the war, it is hard to see how it is going to have much spare capacity to compensate Ukraine for the damage inflicted, even in the unlikely event that Russia was prepared to do so as part of an agreement.

There is a further issue here even if there is no agreement. The cities and towns that have suffered the worst as a result of Putin’s war are those that were once claimed to be pro-Russian; the ones that required “liberation” from Ukrainian “genocide”. A regular suggestion with regards to Putin’s more modest war aims (as opposed to occupying the whole country and installing a puppet government), to be achieved with or without an agreement with Ukraine, is that Russia will hold on to territory that its forces have taken in the east and south. At the very least Moscow will want the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in their entirety, and not just the previous separatist enclaves, to be annexed or given some independent status. This was, after all, the demand with which Russia entered the war.

This is considered by many analysts to be quite likely, and some go so far as to suggest it would be prudent, though painful, for Kyiv to accept it to get the war over. It is, however, by no means straightforward even from a Russian perspective.

First, if Ukraine has not otherwise been defeated and so “demilitarised”, this will be a frontier that will require defending for the indefinite future. Second, given what has happened over the past few weeks to the population of these territories, those people remaining will be more hostile to Russia and will likely resist an imposed government. We are seeing signs of this already, leading to Russia returning to the old Soviet playbook of abducting local mayors and other leaders, as if this will make a difference to popular sentiment. Third, these territories will be economically wrecked and with no prospect of recovery so long as they are separated from Ukraine.

[See also: TV protest illustrates widespread unease with Putin’s war]

Before the war, Russians were grumbling about the cost of subsidising the existing separatist territories. The Ukrainians stopped paying the pensions of those in the enclaves some time ago. Their economies were in decline before 2014 and that process has since accelerated. They are now poorer than other parts of Ukraine and prone to criminality.

The cost of occupying even this limited part of the country will be considerable – and that is before even thinking about the expense required to render those horribly damaged towns and cities more habitable, with effective infrastructure and accommodation. The alternative is to leave them in their devastated state with the bulk of their population departed and with minimal productive economic activity.

Consider what happened to Chechnya after Russia’s war to prevent secession, which also involved brutal attacks on civilian areas. In this case Putin found a Chechen ally, Ramzan Kadyrov, to govern the country, in his own ruthless way. Russia reportedly handed him just under $8bn between 2002 and 2012, which Kadyrov spent as he chose. The capital Grozny was rebuilt but the economy functioned thereafter at barely a fraction of prewar levels. Despite efforts to make the economy more productive, in 2017 it was estimated that Chechnya required 80 per cent of the government budget to be subsidised. Attempts to turn the situation around have not been helped by Chechnya’s rampant corruption. This relatively small territory is already costing Moscow more than $3bn a year. Crimea, annexed in 2014, may be costing a similar amount.

Or take Syria. There, Russian air power was also used in a brutal way, this time against rebel populations and in support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. That campaign succeeded in keeping Assad in power but Russia lacks the resources to reconstruct Syria, and as Assad has little support from other Middle Eastern countries – other than the equally economically challenged Iran – nobody else is inclined to help.

A recent World Bank assessment described the situation: “now moving into its eleventh year, the conflict in Syria has inflicted an almost unimaginable degree of devastation and loss on the Syrian people and their economy. Over 350,000 verifiable deaths have been directly attributed to the conflict so far, but the number of unaccounted lethal and non-lethal casualties is almost certainly far higher. More than half the country’s pre-conflict population (of almost 21 million) has been displaced—one of the largest displacements of people since World War II—and, partly as a result, by 2019, economic activity in Syria had shrunk by more than 50% compared to what it had been in 2010.”   

This is from a study that found losses caused by the conflict’s disruption of the economy exceeded those losses caused by physical destruction by a factor of 20.  

Syria was a far cheaper war for Russia to wage, probably in the low billions of dollars, in fuel, ordnance and personnel cost. Far less has gone into economic assistance and much of that has been returned to Russia as arms sales and gas and infrastructure contracts. Russian patronage kept a regime in power but left the country with little prospect of an early recovery from this humanitarian and economic catastrophe.

The strains on the Russian war effort are already evident: from the army’s hesitation about trying to fight its way into cities and the recruitment of mercenaries, to the reported appeal to China for help with supplies of military equipment and Putin’s fury with his intelligence agencies for misleading assessments and wasting roubles on Ukrainian agents who turned out to be useless. He is now having to choose between a range of poor outcomes, which the US suggests may include escalation to chemical use (which would be both militarily pointless and test further Western determination not to get directly involved).

We are now beyond the point where Putin has much “face” to be saved, even if it were a priority for the other major powers to save it. In launching this disastrous war he has revealed himself to be not only a vicious bully but also a deluded fool. 

War is rarely a good investment. Putin has acted for reasons of political and not economic opportunism. The prospects for any territory “liberated” by Russia are bleak. They will not prosper and will remain cut off from the international economy. People staying in those territories will have to be subsidised for all their needs, while there will be little economic activity.

Because of that destruction, the short-term prospects would be bleak even if these territories are fully returned to Ukraine. But over the longer term, they would be much better off because of the amount of economic assistance Ukraine will receive, and its integration into the international economy.

[See also: Why Russia is a prisoner of geography]

This support will be even more vital should Putin be inclined to follow a scorched-earth policy, attempting to demolish Ukraine’s defence and industrial capacity, diminishing it as a modern economic power for the foreseeable future. This would be not so much a strategy as a temper tantrum, punishing the Ukrainians for refusing to be colonised.

Yet as Germany and Japan showed after 1945, even shattered economies can be rebuilt to even greater levels of efficiency with sufficient resilience and resources. That is another reason why Western financial assistance and investment will be especially vital – Ukraine’s full recovery will serve as a testament to Putin’s failure.

As part of this, and with his standing boosted by war leadership, President Zelensky will need to tackle some of the chronic problems of corruption that have plagued his country.  

We have been caught out already by Putin’s capacity to act on the basis of his warped world view, whatever objective calculations might suggest. Nonetheless, it is worth keeping this analysis in mind when considering prospective peace deals. The Russians may have underestimated the costs of conquest from the start but their approach to war has raised those costs considerably, especially in the parts of Ukraine close to Russia. If they are realistic about future costs (a big if) then they might prefer to revert to the old 2015 Minsk agreement formula, which would have given these areas more of a say in some new constitutional arrangement. On the other hand these areas will now, if allowed to express themselves, likely be as anti-Russian as the rest of Ukraine.

The other implication is that while economic sanctions have not yet given the West much leverage over Putin’s war strategy, they do offer it leverage over his peace strategy. While he may have convinced himself that Russia – with Belarus – has a self-sufficient autarchic option, this is another self-serving fantasy. The question of the future of sanctions and how they might be unwound is not one to be discussed separately from any peace talks. They are a vital part of the negotiations. As there can be no Western-led peace talks without Ukraine, it should be made clear to Moscow that for now this is a card for Zelensky to play. The future of the Russian economy can then be in his hands. Should a moment come to start to ease sanctions, some leverage will be required to ensure that any agreement is being honoured. There could be a link to reparations for the terrible damage caused.

“Fanaticism,” according to George Santayana, “consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” As his initial war plans failed, Putin has insisted his forces follow a disruptive and cruel strategy that has put his original aims even more out of reach, and supplied Ukraine with a say over the future of the Russian economy.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular “New Statesman” contributor. This article originally appeared on his Substack “Comment is Freed”.

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