How long will this war last?

“Violence begets violence.”

With each passing day, the military forces, resources, and equipment increase and with that, the violence intensifies. Mariupol is a humanitarian disaster, yet still, the shelling continues. Across the country, resistance is met with a brutal response, where now Russian soldiers are told to shoot civilians if they resist. Syrian troops are now being drafted in, while there is also chatter of another front being opened up by Belarus targeting the Nuclear plant in Rivne. Meanwhile, the west continues to send through military convoys supporting Ukraine and the foreign legion grows by the day. The escalation is such that at the moment, everyone has invested too much for there to be a negotiated settlement where everyone can save face. Such is the escalation now, that there needs to be both a clear victor and loser.

In the middle of all of this is Putin, who is now facing a war on four fronts:

  • Economic War vs the West
  • Military War vs Ukraine with Western support
  • Oligarchs and state apparatus
  • General populace

Given that Putin shows no willingness to compromise and states only that war will end when Ukraine accepts his terms, assuming that this doesn’t happen, the danger Putin faces is he can’t afford to lose any of those fronts, or it could be game over for him.

Economic War vs the West

Russian oil and gas exports this past month reached levels not seen in over 15 years. Factor that due to that fact, Russia operated a 20 BN USD current account surplus in February. 

Therefore while the west talks about sanctions, until oil and gas stop being bought by the EU, Russia has free licence to continue to wage war. Putin will care not about companies pulling out of Russia, already there are plans afoot to nationalise the assets of businesses leaving. Similarly, the fact that the Moscow stock exchange remains closed will not concern him. His priority will be closing the technological gap with the west, hence operating behind sanctions in some ways for him is better, as it will force Russian scientists and businesses to find a way to build their own microchips, cell phones, etc. Definitely, it won’t be easy, but being behind sanctions means there is no choice. Therefore, unless the EU stops all Oil & Gas imports, I don’t expect any real issue here for Putin. Fortunately for Putin, there has been no concrete statement made by Germany to implement a sharp shock and a gradual drawdown won’t achieve the required result as Putin can just adapt by absorbing the additional transit costs and selling more to India and China. It needs to be shock and awe or not at all. 

Military War vs Ukraine with Western support

Insofar that the Russians are slowly achieving their pre-war objectives, it is taking longer than Putin anticipated and the challenge now is maintaining supply lines. Hence there are stories emerging of humanitarian convoys designated for Mariupol being intercepted by Russian forces and used for their army. Also, there has been widespread reporting of looting. 

While the Russian army is slowly closing in on Kyiv, it is worth remembering the lessons from the past. When the Russian army closed in on Berlin and defeated the Germans, they did so with an army of 2.5m, who were also battle hardened after five years of conflict. Currently they have an army of c100k around Kyiv of mostly conscripts. Therefore at this point, it is worth positing that once the initial assault failed, the objective changed, so with that the primary purpose of the siege of Kyiv is no longer to capture it, but to force the Ukrainians to pull back all available resources in defence of their capital. 

Meanwhile Russian forces have free rein to consolidate and fortify positions in Crimea, Kherson (now with a planned proxy referendum coming), across the Sea of Azov along with the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. While that’s happening, Putin won’t bother with a full-on assault. He doesn’t need to. He can just bombard the city from the limits, demoralize the people by keeping them penned in and limit the ability of the army to resupply across the country or to do counter-offensives. If Kyiv is the last to fall, so be it. Putin is calculating that the longer the siege goes on, the more demoralized people will be and eventually Zelenskyy will have no choice but to surrender.

Equally, he understands the significance of the western supply of arms and equipment. He knows that the Russian air force has taken significant losses. Another interesting statistic is the Russians have lost more tanks in this conflict than the Germans have in their entire army. Now the British are talking about introducing Starstreak S2A missiles, which will mean that no aircraft is safe, even if at cruising altitude. Hence the bombing of the Lviv military training center and the warning that continued convoys will be considered targets.

While there are rumors of soldiers deserting and not being prepared to fight, as this conflict drags on, history tells us mindsets will harden, so any hope from the west that the Russian army will collapse from within is fanciful. If anything Putin will do what he is doing, augment existing battalions with foreign armies and mercenaries, while massively expanding the scope of the military police to deal with potential mutiny. Their brief would then be to tell all soldiers that doing anything else than what they are told by commanders is treason.

As a result, what’s clear from this is that, unless the West does more militarily, over time Russia will probably win (unless Putin loses one of his other three fronts). Realistically for NATO to directly engage would be very dangerous. Possibly the only way there could be a military escalation that doesn’t lead to nuclear war is for the British, French, and Americans to intervene under the 1984 Budapest accords, where they send in a combined peacekeeping force on humanitarian grounds, to destroy all Russian artillery which is leading to the mass refugee crisis in Europe. Do I expect this to happen? No. But would Putin launch a nuclear strike on any of those three, knowing all three are nuclear powers? No. 

For the Governments of the UK, USA, and France there is a risk assessment needed to be done. To do nothing means the Russians probably win, albeit at a heavy cost where after the war they are sanctioned to the west. Or step up and engage, and save Ukraine where in the aftermath, British, American & French companies can play a central part in rebuilding the Ukrainian economy and unleashing a boom for the country. The issue of course is that none of the countries involved have a border with Ukraine and the Turkish have already sealed the Bosphorus strait, which means there is a significant logistical challenge to avoid NATO being pulled in. Possibly the only way this could be done is for the US nuclear weapons in Turkey to be put under Turkish control, so the Russians understand that firing on them is not an option. At that point, a full-on naval assault could begin, targeting Crimea in the first instance and then pushing the Russians back from there.

Oligarchs and State Apparatus

Over the last decade, Putin has been careful to surround himself with a combination of loyalists and people who share his worldview regarding the west. Oligarchs have been tolerated as they don’t interfere in the political sphere. The challenge of this approach is that it has led to a culture of deceit. Putin has now placed two of the most senior officials in the FSB under house arrest for failing to brief him accurately regarding the intelligence provided on what the Ukrainian resistance would be. Expect further purges. 

Amongst the Oligarchs, Oleg Deripaska has called for an end to the war in Ukraine, joining a handful of others who have dared to speak out against the invasion. However, none of them are openly challenging Putin, only stating that the war is a disaster for the economy. In truth, in Russia, Putin stands unopposed, and there is no one capable of uniting the various factions in Russia to stand against him. Things will need to get a lot worse before Putin is under any serious pressure and as long as Putin is able to show a meaningful victory at the point the war ends, the opposition will dissipate. 

The main internal chatter is now is that the reason the way has not been won already is due to incompetence, hence 9 generals being fired this week. In the west, we would love to believe there is a group behind the scenes plotting to remove Putin, but in reality, the key generals remain loyal and as history tells us, as long as the Army supports the leader, their rule is secure. 

General Populace

Russia is a country that has had a successful revolution and Putin as a student of history will be very familiar with the various elements that led to that. Hence he has been systematically quashing any resistance, no matter how minor, to the point where people walking down the street are being challenged to produce their phones, to prove they are pro-Russia and don’t have any anti-war messages written to friends. 

People protesting are arrested and there is an accelerated escalation to criminalisation to cow people into submission. Anyone who continually stands up and against the war risks 10+ years in jail. This approach, combined with making sure there is no leader who can be a lightning rod is proving highly effective. In a country of 150m approx, only 20k have been arrested for protesting the war. For context, when Blair took the UK into Iraq, we saw marches on the streets of 1m people. Therefore assume that there will be no revolution or popular uprising. People who don’t want to remain in Russia will find ways to leave.

In the meantime expect the size of the Russian secret police to grow ever larger as a way to maintain control over the people.

In Summary

Due to the reasons given above, I am not expecting this war to be curtailed due to internal Russian factors. Putin has stated he will continue until his objectives are achieved, which could take years. From his perspective, he has shown he doesn’t care about the humanitarian impact of flattening a city. Nor does he worry about cultural destruction.  Therefore the only way to prevent the complete flattening of Ukraine is for the west to escalate militarily and for the EU to stop oil and gas exports. Or stand back, watch Ukraine be flattened, Putin take all the spoils, and deal with the humanitarian crisis that will accompany 20m refugees… 

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About the author: James Chaplin
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