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Putin’s long war gamble could be paying off

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As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nears the end of its second year, a conclusion to the conflict seems as distant as ever. 

Kyiv’s counteroffensive has failed to decisively break through the Russian Army’s prepared defenses in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is digging in for a long war and assumes it can outlast the West’s interest and Ukraine’s will to fight. 

Without a firm U.S. commitment and strategy to see the war to a victorious conclusion, Putin’s prediction that he can outlast Ukraine and the West may come to pass.

During the summer and fall of 2023, the scale of Russia’s societal, financial and political mobilization to support the war effort became apparent. Under the draft budget passed by the Russian State Duma on Oct. 26, defense spending for 2024 will rise by 68 percent to the equivalent of $115 billion, making up almost a third of total spending. 

This explosion in military spending will help buoy the Russian economy for the long haul, even if Russia’s predicted 2024 economic growth rate of 2.3 percent (per the estimate of the Russian Ministry of Economic Development) will be accompanied by the inflationary effects of high social and military spending.

Under the public prodding of President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s defense industry has expanded the production of key munitions and equipment for a long campaign. 

Despite initial disruptions to defense production brought on by Western retaliatory sanctions following Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Moscow is reportedly “on track” to manufacture 2 million artillery shells a year. To circumvent challenging U.S. sanctions on the export of critical electronics and chips to Russia, it has turned to creative import workarounds to acquire the critical components it lacks the ability to produce domestically. 

Russia is also forging ahead with plans to produce 6,000 Iranian-developed drones in Tatarstan that would be necessary to sustain Russia’s air bombardment campaign against Ukrainian civilian and military targets and to import massive amounts of munitions from North Korea.

Rather than attempting a risky total mobilization of Russia’s population, the Kremlin has continued to choose a more sustainable strategy of partial mobilization to support a long war. 

In September 2022, the Kremlin announced a “partial mobilization” program to replace and refine a disjointed shadow mobilization strategy, which avoided a single large manpower push with an eye on long-term viability. With the assassination of Yevgeny Prigozhin in August, the Kremlin power vertical’s most significant “ultra-patriot” challenger from within the ruling elite has been removed. The Wagner boss had already been sidelined after his June mutiny, but his death likely gives the Kremlin reason to believe that it can continue to prosecute the war on its terms without fear of intra-elite challenges for the foreseeable future.

Just as Russia’s logistical legwork to support a long war takes shape, the domestic and international factors that enable sustained U.S. support for Ukraine are weakening. Hamas’s bloody October attack on Israel and Israel’s ground operation in Gaza has already knocked Ukraine out of the headlines. As the U.S. responds to Iranian proxy attacks on its forces and shift forces into the wider Middle East, the threat of an expanding conflict threatens to absorb Washington’s bandwidth.

Encouragingly, the House has resolved its leadership crisis through Rep. Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) selection to lead the chamber. He promised in an Oct. 26 interview that America would not abandon Ukraine. Despite his previous opposition to Ukraine aid legislation as well as the White House and Senate’s preference for a combined Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and border security package, Johnson plans to “marry” Ukraine aid with border security in a bid to secure their passage together. 

No matter how this strategy is received by the conference, Johnson will need to delicately thread a needle of legislative priorities (including passing the fiscal year 2024 budget) to push Ukraine’s aid package across the finish line, all while wrangling a Republican Conference whose interest in providing a large aid package to Ukraine is decidedly mixed.

Nonetheless, Russia’s war effort still faces substantial obstacles. While Russia has boosted its military industry, its economy is distorted by the demands of wartime mobilization. Despite the absence to date of decisive breakthroughs in Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Kyiv’s forces continue to inflict losses on Russian forces and reach into Russia’s rear areas with long-range fires. Ukraine and its Western partners have already demonstrated remarkable staying power in this conflict.

However, staving off defeat will require Washington to provide a sustained flow of aid to Ukraine in pursuit of defined aims, no matter how domestic imperatives and events elsewhere in the world may demand attention elsewhere. Otherwise, the Kremlin’s long bet on Western loss of interest in Ukraine could pay off.

Wesley Culp is a research assistant for defense strategy and great-power competition at the American Enterprise Institute. He can be found on Twitter @WesleyJCulp.

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