How the war in Ukraine could wear Russia down in the end

Wreckage of intercepted Russian missiles in Kyiv on Jan. 16. (Roman Pilipey/AFP/Getty Images)
Wreckage of intercepted Russian missiles in Kyiv on Jan. 16. (Roman Pilipey/AFP/Getty Images)

Leon Aron is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of “Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Uses of War”.

In his war marathon, Vladimir Putin hopes to outlast Ukraine and the West on the battlefield, in the corridors of power and in the courts of public opinion. But in the new year, he faces a dangerous third challenger: the war itself. The fighting in Ukraine is likely to heighten the strain on most Russian lives, and increasingly imperil many, as the war eats like a voracious mole into the Kremlin’s stores of money and men.

In 2024, the Kremlin is hiking defense expenditures by 68 percent over last year. Combined with spending for law enforcement, the military will consume 40 percent of the country’s budget. Where will the money come from? With oil prices stable and natural gas exports, most of which used to go to Western Europe, down about 60 percent from 2021, the state’s year-on-year income from these sources has been cut by 24 percent.

Barring a wider war in the Middle East, oil is not likely to go up nearly enough to make up for the defense boost. Nor can much more cash come from increased volumes of energy exports: Russia already pumps all the oil it can extract, selling much of it at deep discounts to China and India. If anything, sales might decrease as the West continues to crack down on the owners of the “shadow fleet” that carries Russian oil in violation of a $60-per-barrel insurance price cap, established by the Group of Seven, and as some ports refuse entry to many of these old, uninsured vessels.

Last year, the Russian government raised taxes on oil and gas sales and hit businesses with a one-time windfall tax. Putin also dipped into the rainy-day National Welfare Fund to the tune of $38 billion, or one-fifth of the total. At this rate, the piggy bank will soon be empty, leaving the Kremlin no choice but to increase taxes. The next likeliest tactic is raising the 20 percent value-added tax on producers and retailers, who are certain to pass the costs on to consumers. With Joseph Stalin’s U.S.S.R. increasingly a model for Putin’s Kremlin, another highly unpopular levy in the pipeline could be “voluntary” subscription to government bonds.

Whatever the stratagem, the timing for raiding Russian wallets is decidedly inauspicious. Even though the Central Bank added another point to the 15 percent prime rate just before Christmas to contain inflation — currently at 7.5 percent — the prices of key staples continue to rise. Eggs cost 43 percent more than a year ago, chicken is up almost 27 percent, and sugar is over 10 percent more expensive. For its part, to make up for the plunge in foreign sales, the natural gas behemoth Gazprom has raised domestic prices for gas by 11 percent over the second half of last year and plans to increase them by another 8 percent in 2024. At one point last year, the ruble plunged to 100 to the U.S. dollar and is likely to continue the slide.

Social spending, already meager, is being further cut back. Health-care appropriations are slated to go down by 10 percent. Funding for maintaining and repairing utilities — water, sewage, electricity, heat — will be slashed by half in 2025. Meanwhile, in the first week of January, with the temperatures dropping down to 4 degrees below zero , almost 150,000 people in the city of Podolsk, near Moscow, were without heat for several days.

More dangerous incidents are likely to be in store for Russia’s airlines, which suffered more than 180 accidents and malfunctions in 2023 — triple the previous year’s number. As about 70 percent of the country’s commercial airline fleet is foreign-made, planes lack spare parts and do not undergo mandated maintenance. Any substitute materials and parts are almost certainly not certified by the manufacturers. Fatal crashes are only a matter of time.

In the greatest peril in 2024, however, are Russia’s young men. Apparently, last fall’s biannual military draft did not yield enough recruits, and Putin signed a decree expanding the armed forces by 170,000 soldiers, to a total of 1.3 million military personnel. Yet to reach that number in the face of front-line casualties, some believe the Kremlin might have to conscript as many as 300,000 recruits.

Striving to meet their quotas, draft authorities often disregard medical and psychiatric exemptions, and, in at least one reported case, mental disabilities. Students with valid deferments are grabbed from dormitories and Muslims from mosques. Although Putin promised not to deploy first-time draftees, or srochniki, in Ukraine, many are reportedly pressured into signing “contracts” turning them into “volunteers” eligible for the trenches.

Even as Putin scrapes the bottom of the barrel, pardoning convicted murderers, rapists and, lately, Satanists and cannibals, after six months of service in special Storm-Z units in Ukraine, the flow of volunteer inmates appears to be thinning. Prison authorities have been reported to threaten convicts with additional sentences of up to 10 years if they refuse to serve.

Meanwhile, the reservists sent to the front during “partial mobilization” in September 2022 are still in Ukraine, with little prospect of a rotation, much less discharge. Another national conscription, which is very likely to follow Putin’s reelection set for March 17, on the 10th anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, will be extremely unpopular, igniting more protests from the growing movement of reservists’ wives and mothers.

The robust support for the war in public opinion surveys notwithstanding, the vast majority of Russians are only beginning to be tested by privations and personal sacrifice. After almost a quarter-century of a regime likely unmatched in modern Russian history in cynicism and corruption, most Russians have become apathetic, affected by a condition that leading Russian political sociologists have called “learned indifference”. They might pay lip service to the regime, while waiting for “all this” to end. This is a rather thin reed on which to sustain a war of attrition.

If the West stays in the race — steady, firm and patient in its support for Ukraine — and lets the mole of the senseless, criminal and profligate war do its job this year, the outcome of Putin’s marathon is far from predetermined.

Leon Aron is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of “Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Uses of War.”

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