As 2023 draws to a close, the mood has been dampened by sobering reality and grim predictions of the future for Ukraine. The much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive of 2023 delivered limited gains. Instead, the Russian military is on the offensive across the front. The liberation of the city of Kherson and Kharkiv region, which has set the optimistic tone and predictions of Ukrainian victory, are giving way to unhelpful defeatism. The continuity of Western military and financial support for Ukraine is being put into question. Putin has launched a massive PR offensive to project strength and confidence, boasting about economic successes and dramatically increasing the military spending for the next three years, and declaring an intent and ability to sustain his war against Ukraine long-term.
But is the situation really that hopeless?
Although risks for Ukraine are indeed significant and should be properly dealt with, the reality is far from the gloom and doom we see in the media, and there is a clear way for Ukraine and the democratic world to beat Putin.
We need to get off the unhelpful emotional pendulum— swinging from the gloomy pessimism of “Putin will take Kyiv in 3 days”, to unfounded optimism of “Ukraine will win the war in 2023”, and then back to the grim of today again. What is needed instead is keeping a calm focus on, as colleagues from the Center for a New American Security correctly phrased it, “identifying Russian vulnerabilities and how to leverage them”.
Here’s where the good news begins: Putin’s vulnerabilities are plenty and growing.
The initial shock of realizing that Russian economy withstood the Western sanctions can be tempered with taking a step back and looking into the near future. Russia’s Central Bank’s extreme rate hikes are killing the economic recovery, and seem incapable of stopping the rampant inflation and curbing ruble depreciation (read more on the effects of sanctions here). Recovery forecasts for the Russian economy are being sharply slowed down. Putin’s plans to boost military spending are not backed by realistic budget revenue projections— for 2024, the Russian budget envisages growth in revenues above 22% year-on-year, which is nowhere to come from. It has even prompted billionaire Oleg Deripaska to criticize this naive lack of budget realism in frivolous language, describing the upcoming landing of the Russian economy as “butt hitting the ice”.
There is a myriad of other indicators that show that Russian wartime economy is a rapidly progressing train wreck, and we will break those down in a follow-on piece. For now, let’s get back to the situation at the front which is also replete with vulnerabilities for Putin.
His main challenge is poor quality of manpower. During the first two years of the war, the most combat-ready and professional troops and units have been decimated. Most manpower at the front lines are new recruits and mobilized soldiers, who are much more poorly trained, and, what is even more important, exhausted after serving long months at the front lines without rotation. The latter issue is becoming more pressing, with the public protests of wives of mobilized soldiers demanding their demobilization are becoming more widespread across the country.
This situation can’t last for too long: there are physical limits on soldier’s ability to hold on without rotation, they can’t do it forever – particularly on the background of Russia’s permanent attempts to conduct intensive offensive operations with heavy casualties and very limited gains. This situation becomes explosive.
However, at his public press conference in mid-December, Putin rejected the need for a second wave of mandatory mobilization – and he has reasons to do so. First, new wave of mobilization will be extremely unpopular, and may serve as a breaking point in public support for Putin – we have explained it in more detail here. Second, it will be extremely challenging, because shortage of skilled workforce becomes one of the most pressing issues constraining the economic recovery – which is widely admitted by most Putin’s officials and oligarchs, from Chairman of the Russian Central Bank Elvira Nabiullina to businesspeople from the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. Corporations are fiercely defending the right to reserve their employees from being drafted; there’s a serious shortage of skilled workforce in the military manufacturing complex itself.
Third, the new wave of mobilization in any case will be much more difficult and less productive than the first one in the fall of 2022 – because the people most skilled in relevant military professions, and those who least resisted the draft, were already mobilized. What is left are those who are (1) far less skilled, and, therefore, will be less effective at the front, and (2) will be more inclined to evade, so drafting them will be a much more effort consuming exercise.
All these circumstances point out that the next wave of mobilization will not be limited to Putin simply picking up the phone and giving the order – it will be an enormously challenging undertaking. This is actually the reason why Putin has been hesitating to call a second wave of mobilization throughout 2023, despite pressing needs to do so – the increasing breadth of clamor from relatives of mobilized soldiers is one of the proofs of that. Even if new mobilization will be called in the next few months, it will take time to equip and train new soldiers, so their arrival at the front will not be quick, and they will be much less combat ready.
Troubles with the quality of military manpower is Putin’s key vulnerability, which gives Ukraine a serious advantage and a way forward. Of course, there’s a similar problem with the Ukrainian military, which is significantly exhausted after two years of the war. But Ukrainian army is still significantly more motivated to fight, regaining its own land from the aggressor – while the moral climate of the Russian soldiers, according to available information, is quite low, and less and less Russian military servicemen understand what they are doing in Ukraine. “What kind of “death of the brave”? We die like earthworms here – that’s all,” in the words of one soldier said talking to his relatives at home as per published audio intercepts of the calls. Ukraine will also receive a boost with arrival of F16s and leveling off the balance of airpower – a key factor undermining the success of Ukrainian counteroffensive of 2023.
An alarming factor from battlefield watchers among he Russian elites – as per our own insider sources reporting from Russia – is that Russia clearly can’t launch successful major offensive operations anymore. Russian military permanently tries human-costly offensive operations in areas like Avdiivka or Kupyansk, but to very limited success and with heavy casualties. In 2023, Russia lost about 1,5 times more military servicemen in the war than in 2022, without making any significant gains. Large-scale offensive operations comparable to the full-scale offensive of February-March 2022 are unthinkable. “If one side can’t have offensives in a war, it’s clear who wins and who loses over time,” says one of our sources in Russia. Of course, it also depends on Ukraine’s ability to launch effective counteroffensives – but at least Ukraine can possibly do that. Russia can’t.
Moreover, as we all know now, Russia continues to rely on the West for critical components for its military production. This means that Putin simply won’t be able to produce military hardware without clandestine imports of Western technologies and component parts – which means that shutting down those supply routes would greatly impair Russia’s abilities for military production. It is the same story with economic sanctions: stricter enforcement and anti-circumvention measures can make sanctions more effective; bleeding Putin’s resources dry.
Overestimating Putin’s ability to withstand challenges, inflating his economic and military strength, and exaggerating public support from Russians, a common trend in Western media outlets and think tanks, may get more clicks and eyeballs, but aids Putin’s psyops and harms democracy.
While acknowledging Putin’s remaining strength is crucial, some publications falsely create an impression that he lacks vulnerabilities, portraying a thriving economy and unwavering public support. This is inaccurate; despite managing various troubles, Putin faces significant and growing problems that should be exposed and exploited. Magnifying his temporary “successes” hinders a realistic assessment of the situation, inadvertently assisting Putin in psychological and propaganda warfare against the free world. Experts and commentators should be mindful of this.
Despite difficulties, there is a clear path forward, and Putin cannot prevail over Ukraine and the West unless they succumb to pessimism and cease the fight. Rather than panicking, it’s time to realistically assess Putin’s vulnerabilities and proceed to defeat him. As Sam Greene of CEPA aptly states, “what the West needs is a sober understanding that this is not a war of choice – and thus not a war they can choose to avoid.” Victory is possible, but it requires more realism. Let’s make 2024 a year when realism and patience prevail over inflated expectations, setting a pattern for the victory we all seek.