Charles Davies: After Ukraine: Russia’s Strategic Outlook

Colonel Charles Davies (Ret’d)

After Ukraine: Russia’s Strategic Outlook

We do not yet know how the war with Ukraine will end, or what Vladimir Putin will ultimately achieve by it, but we do know many of the strategic issues and trends that will then face Russia, and can draw some conclusions about the implications for Western security. 

Russia in Context

Prior to the war, Russia’s economic performance was chronically anemic compared to most of its neighbours and competitors.  The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was predicting a total growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for Russia of about 15% over the period 2019 (pre-pandemic) to 2026.  That is well below the rates expected over the same period for neighbouring China at 74.3%, India at 53.1%, 41.2% for the European Union, 36.2% for the US, and 51.1% for Canada (GDP measured in US dollars; comparisons using other measures will yield different numbers but comparable trends).  

Further contributing to Russia’s economic malaise is population decline. Estimates vary, but a rough average of projections by the Population Reference Bureau and the UN indicates a reduction of more than 2% by 2035 and nearly 4% by 2050.  However, as Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson have shown in their landmark 2019 book Empty Planet, there is good reason to believe both agencies’ demographic projections err on the high side, so Russia’s population may shrink faster than forecast.    

The net result of these pre-war trends has been an ongoing slow erosion of Russia’s relative economic capacity compared to its competitors, progressively degrading its ability to finance the instruments of state power needed to exert influence and further its interests globally.  The recent unexpectedly poor operational performance of large elements of the Russian military is but one illustration of the kind of “hollowing out” of capability this can lead to.

War with Ukraine

Before the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin had likely seen his country’s economic and population trends as a distant problem that would not seriously threaten his regime during his lifetime.  Western sanctions, however, have clearly hit much harder than he expected and their full impact has yet to be felt.  The IMF is now predicting the Russian economy will shrink 8.5% this year and some Russian economists predict 10%.  The recent exodus of tens of thousands of young, well-educated citizens, in particular technology workers, who oppose the invasion of Ukraine or fear the impact of sanctions on their employment will also not help.

Unless the war can be quickly brought to a conclusion on terms that would cause sanctions to be lifted (i.e. acceptable to Ukraine’s Western supporters), their impact could persist for quite some time.  However, while these unexpected consequences of the war may force Putin to change his calculations at some point, his primary focus remains trying to undo the effects of the collapse of the Soviet Union and loss of Russian influence and control over its near-abroad neighbours.  

The budding realignment of Ukraine’s economy, polity and society towards a Western model following the 2014 Euromaidan uprising represents a particular problem for him.  Quite apart from the loss of influence over his neighbour, the deep historical and social ties between the two countries would make the example of an increasingly Westernized and successful Ukraine, which would be impossible to conceal from the Russian people, a potentially serious future threat to his leadership.

The war he launched to deal with these problems has not gone as expected and has also revealed surprising foundational weaknesses in large parts of the Russian military (though not necessarily all parts it must be recognized).  Worse, these weaknesses have been laid bare for the world to see and this represent a serious new problem for Putin.  They can, and undoubtedly will, be eventually corrected but it will take some time and a lot of money.  Given Russia’s economic position, finding that money will be a challenge – especially when currently high energy revenues return to more normal levels.

Russia after the War

Whenever the war with Ukraine does “end,” whether by negotiated agreement, stalemate and exhaustion, or some other condition, Putin will be facing a worse strategic situation than before he launched it.  As noted earlier, his country’s economy has been hit hard by Western sanctions, even if not catastrophically so, and he will need to persuade the West to lift them as soon as possible.  He is unlikely to be able to induce his largest and most profitable European export customers to walk back their efforts to reduce their dependence on Russian energy and other products, and whether the Nord Stream II pipeline system ever goes into operation is at best uncertain.  Further, how many of the tens of thousands of young, educated citizens who left because of the war can be induced to return to help reinvigorate the Russian economy is also difficult to predict.

Politically, he will almost certainly still face the problem of the ongoing Westernization of Ukraine, which may well accelerate as its European, North American and other supporters are likely to invest heavily in its reconstruction and recovery.  Quick entry of Ukraine into the European Union is also likely, perhaps even before fighting ends.  Even worse from Putin’s perspective, he will face a potentially further enlarged NATO (adding Finland and/or Sweden) that is more united and collectively focused than at any time since the worst days of the Cold War.

Domestically, while he may get some short-term benefit if he succeeds in carving out a swath of strategically valuable Ukrainian territory, the impact of the loss of the cruiser Moskva and the substantial military casualties suffered by his army – and its battlefield failures – on his reputation and leadership will take some time to become clear within the Russian population.  Whether or not this becomes a substantive political problem for him will probably depend on the ultimate outcome of the war, and its economic and political aftermath.

Regardless of how the war is concluded, Vladimir Putin will have few good options for dealing with the changed strategic environment he has created.  The West can expect him to be an angry and possibly politically damaged (but still nuclear-armed) adversary, and therefore even more unpredictable.  Until the systemic weaknesses in his armed forces can be corrected, he will not be able to credibly threaten to launch large-scale conventional military operations against NATO, although he certainly has other tools at his disposal and will not hesitate to use them if he thinks the risk-reward calculation is favourable.

The West after the War

There are important lessons from history for the West to keep in mind in dealing with Russia going forward.  As Doug Saunders recently observed in The Globe and Mail, the West did not win the Cold War – the Soviets lost it when their leaders concluded that their political, economic and social model was not working.  Unfortunately, Russia’s subsequent efforts to reinvent itself as a democracy were unsuccessful, in part due to the West’s failure to put any serious effort into supporting and assisting the country’s transformation, so it drifted back to the old familiar autocratic model.  

As a result, we are now into “Cold War II” and if the West is to again prevail we need to apply the lessons of the first one and its aftermath.  Alongside deterring Russian actions against NATO, it will be important to maintain a level of ongoing commercial, social and other relationships with the country aimed at supporting necessary diplomatic and political engagement and keeping the example of Western democracy present in Russian society as a counterpoint to its current lived experience.  

Certainly for the near term, we will need to carefully balance firm deterrence with avoidance of pushing Putin into politically impossible corners.  At the same time, aggressive efforts to reduce Western dependency on Russian energy, key minerals and other commodities need to continue in order to eliminate these as political levers to be used against democratic governments.  It may also help to further erode Russia’s economic capacity to fund the instruments of state coercion. The key is to keep commercial relationships in particular to a level that is consistent with long-term Western security interests, and avoids any dependency on Russia.

Ukraine will continue to be in Putin’s sights and it will be important for the West to make substantial ongoing investments in its security and helping it to succeed as a democratic country.  We need to do this for two main reasons: because it is the right thing to do under the circumstances; and because a successful Ukrainian polity, society and economy will be a compelling model that may eventually help persuade Russians to have another go at democratic reform.  If and when that happens, this time the West will need to actively support the effort.  

None of this will be easy.  At least in the near term, and probably longer, we can expect a sustained full-court press by Vladimir Putin to continue trying to disrupt and weaken Ukraine, create and exploit divisions within NATO, the EU and beyond, and meddle covertly in political discourse and elections within democracies.  He will use all the means at his disposal in the effort.  He will also leverage the partnerships he does have with BRICS countries and other nations to undermine Western measures against him.  We are in for turbulent times.



Colonel (retired) Charles Davies



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