What factors could change Putin’s course in the war in Ukraine?

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But Putin faces certain tactical constraints on the battlefield, as well as certain geopolitical and economic constraints. They will all likely make his ability to fight a long war in Ukraine more difficult but far from impossible.

“Time is not on Putin’s side,” said Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of consultancy R. Politik. She noted that as the war continues and sanctions take hold, the fallout on Russia from the war is likely to worsen.

On Saturday in Warsaw, President Biden appeared to significantly widen Washington’s showdown with Putin, saying the Russian leader ‘can’t stay in power’ in a speech that wrapped up a trip focused on talks with NATO allies. . Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that Biden was not calling for “regime change”, but argued that Putin “cannot be empowered to go to war”.

President Biden met with Polish President Andrzej Duda and Ukrainian refugees ahead of his speech outside the Royal Castle in Warsaw on March 26. (Video: Joy Yi, Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post, Photo: The Washington Post)

On the battlefield, Russia wrested control of much of southern Ukraine at great expense, nearly completing a “land bridge” between Russian territory and Crimea, which Russia forcibly annexed to Ukraine in 2014. But efforts to take kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine’s two largest cities, have stalled. So are attempts to extend the land grab from south to west to include Mykolaiv and Odessa.

A senior NATO official estimated on Wednesday that the Russian military had lost between 7,000 and 15,000 troops in just one month, more personnel than the United States lost in Iraq and Afghanistan combined in 20 years. Thousands of other Russian soldiers were injured.

Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst with the CNA research group in Virginia, said the heavy Russian casualties don’t necessarily appear to be a political limitation for Putin at home, but hamper the combat effectiveness of his units. At some point, Kofman said, the high number of Russian soldiers killed or wounded affects morale and the ability of commanders to push the campaign forward.

Recruitment of new conscripts by the Russian army begins on April 1 and Putin will have to issue a decree in the coming days on the number of new soldiers the Russian Ministry of Defense must recruit. He will also have to decide whether or not to retain existing conscripts due to losses in Ukraine.

Continuing a multi-pronged war over the long term will require many more forces and a broader mobilization than the Kremlin has yet to undertake.

“In April they’re going to have to make a decision on what they’re going to do with the manpower and how prepared they are to support a big war of this magnitude far beyond what they had in mind. ‘intention,” Kofman said. “Are they going to engage in a big war or see where they can go in the next few weeks?”

Ukrainian resistance, and even successful offensives to retake territory from the Russians in some places, could also limit what Putin thinks he can achieve and force him to recalibrate his goals. At the same time, Russian forces are struggling to maintain supply lines on multiple fronts.

But Kofman said Putin’s decisions largely depend on the information he sees and what he is told. US intelligence regularly assessed before the war that the Russian leader was receiving bad information from his inner circle of advisers.

“The big question is, what does Putin really know about this war?” Kofman said. “What is his perception of the reality of the battlefield? What are the military leaders telling him about their prospects for success? He added: “Does he believe that continuing to use force can actually achieve any of his political goals in Ukraine? Or does he see the situation as one of diminishing returns? »

Nick Reynolds, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said the Kremlin will face limitations on ammunition, manpower and morale, as well as logistics. These realities could force Putin to change his goal of overthrowing the Ukrainian government to binding changes in Ukraine’s political posture, or to focus the war on a single front.

Reynolds pointed in particular to the limitations of the workforce. “It’s clear that Russia is really looking for personnel,” Reynolds said. “It’s not so much manpower. It is a trained and motivated workforce.

The acceleration of arms deliveries to Ukraine from the United States and Europe will also create more constraints for Russian forces. These include US Switchblade drones which could be particularly damaging to Russian forces in urban combat.

So far, Putin has been able to survive sanctions on Russia by continuing to sell oil and gas to customers such as China and India, in addition to Europe, and forcing exporters to Russian energy companies to buy rubles with these revenues, preventing a total collapse of the currency. With high global energy prices and moderate ruble devaluation, Putin will likely have cash to cover Russian government expenses and spend on economic stimulus.

Still, economic headwinds are likely to worsen for Russia as gross domestic product contracts and unemployment rises, and further escalations on the battlefield could lead to further sanctions.

In the meantime, Moscow will find itself increasingly dependent for goods and technology on China, Turkey, Israel and other nations that did not sanction Russia for the invasion. Putin’s ability to keep these countries, particularly China, on the sidelines as the war continues will affect what Russians can buy, access and produce.

Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center specializing in relations with Russia, expects Beijing does not want to be seen as activating Putin’s war machine or jeopardizing Western affairs, and therefore is unlikely to violate not the sanctions nor will it provide a weapons pipeline. “Otherwise, a wild game of opportunity is out there, buying cheap stuff and getting the most advanced military technology,” Gabuev said. “China will be smart in continuing to pursue this.”

For weeks, US and European officials have been probing whether the war is causing dissension among Russia’s elite, particularly in the intelligence and military circle around Putin, a possible limitation for the former officer. of the KGB as it continues the war.

Despite reports of recriminations within the Russian security establishment and questions about the public absence of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, there was no obvious break. been publicly confirmed. So far, the only senior Russian official to have left the country because of the war is Anatoly Chubais, Russia’s envoy for sustainable development.

Stanovaya, the political analyst, dismissed the idea that Russia’s security elite, often called the siloviki, would rise up against Putin, especially in these circumstances when they wield vast power. “Today it is impossible to imagine something like that,” she said. “There is no dissatisfaction among the security services. These are all fairy tales.

Broad sanctions against the Russian elite reduce the chances of any public break with Putin, Stanovaya said, because sanctioned members of the elite have nowhere to go, such as safe havens in Europe, if they decide that they do not agree.

For years, Putin offered Russians stability and economic growth, even as they traded their political freedoms for a more authoritarian system. The economic contraction due to the sanctions could prevent presenting the standard of living as a given.

“Now Putin will have to offer something else to the Russian people. It no longer has an economy,” said Kirill Martynov, political editor of the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. “And it looks like the thing he can feed the Russians is some kind of political greatness: look, we just got back into the big country club. Every European leader wants to talk to me because I’m so awesome and so dangerous.

Martynov said the appeal of this message would diminish if economic conditions become particularly difficult, although the government will likely continue to focus on geopolitical events as a distraction. “I mean, if you can’t do anything with your economy, and you can’t do anything with your society, the only thing you can do is be dangerous enough,” he said. “Putin can start any war he wants.”

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