Russia may have already lost upwards of 50,000 men in Ukraine, along with untold economic costs from sanctions, direct expenses and forgone labor. Many in the West have hoped that Russia’s invasion, failing to take the whole of Ukraine in the early stages of the war, will prove to be just a costly blunder from which Russia will eventually have to retreat. They are wrong. Russia can and will continue to fight.
Although it is not yet certain, it is beginning to appear that Ukraine’s much-anticipated spring offensive has become bogged down. If the coming weeks bear out the same results, the war may become a stalemate. Why would Russia keep fighting a war that seems ready to drag on forever, with neither side able to vanquish the other? For this, we must take a look at Russia’s wider strategic outlook.
What motivates Russia?
To discern what long-term objectives Russian President Vladimir Putin might have in Ukraine, we need to begin in 2014. Then, a series of clashes between protestors and government forces resulted in the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The events became known as the Maidan Revolution. If we can understand why Russia considered Maidan a threat, we can understand Russia’s fundamental objectives in its subsequent relations with Ukraine.
From the Russian point of view, the first problem with Maidan was that the movement threatened to result in an eventual accession to NATO. While the primary goal of the protestors was the integration of Ukraine into the EU, not NATO, Russia saw this as a slippery slope. Moscow—whether during the Empire, the Soviet Union, or the Federation—has always considered threats from the territory of modern Ukraine, and particularly from the part of it east of the Dnieper River, to be absolutely unacceptable. It will strive to remove hostile forces from the area at almost any cost. The thought of NATO forces east of the Dnieper, especially in Crimea, is absolutely unthinkable in Moscow. Moscow thus perceives NATO enlargement as a threat of the most existential kind.
Secondly, Russia has a positive interest in Crimea, since the Russian coast of the Black Sea has no good sites for year-round naval ports. The Russian Black Sea fleet must thus rely on the Crimean port of Sevastopol to stage its operations. Retaining the use of Crimea for the navy is a condition for the maintenance of Russia’s status as a Black Sea power. Strategically, Crimea is the only part of Ukraine’s territory that holds positive value for Moscow (as opposed to negative value, i.e. the deterrence of possible threats). However, Russia’s experience after the annexation of Crimea in 2014—particularly Ukraine’s economic siege of the peninsula and cutting of its water supply—has suggested that control of the territory immediately opposite Crimea on the Ukrainian mainland is key to the support of Crimea itself.
Finally, Russia has sought to avoid the loss of face that would result if the pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were comprehensively defeated. This is not only a matter of vanity for Russia, but an important strategic objective to maintain its influence in the post-Soviet space. Russia exercises influence by playing the role of protector of ethnic Russians and other pro-Russian ethnic groups, such as the Ossetes and Abkhaz in Georgia. To be seen as weak and ineffective in this role would be a serious hindrance to Russia’s continued influence in its neighborhood.
Russia still has much to gain from fighting on
In spite of its heavy physical and reputational losses in the Ukraine War, these three goals provide Russia ample reason to cling tenaciously to its current position. Holding on to the land bridge between Crimea and the Donbas addresses Crimea’s post-2014 strategic vulnerabilities, and the expansion of Russian territory to a significantly increased portion of Donetsk and virtually all of Luhansk demonstrates effective support of the rebels. As long as things do not change, two of Russia’s main assets in the region—the port of Sevastopol and its reputation as protector—remain substantially intact.
If battle lines do remain mostly fixed, the main downside for Russia will be the significant areas east of the Dnieper that remain in Ukrainian hands. As international relations scholar John Mearsheimer has noted, Russia’s second-best alternative to controlling strategic territory is to “wreck Ukraine as a functioning state”, and this Russia has been doing very effectively.
Compared to Russia, Ukraine is older, poorer, more demographically unstable—with lower birthrates and negative net migration, and vastly smaller. The war has greatly aggravated these problems, as young men die in battle and young women and children become refugees. What’s more, Ukraine’s infrastructure has been systematically destroyed. A country with a demographic crisis like that of Ukraine needs to develop its economy quickly and maximize its resources to deal with an aging and shrinking population. This war has instead severely damaged Ukraine’s economy, and every month that passes is a crucial month in which Ukraine fails to get on the road to recovery, while the likelihood of refugees returning falls.
Simply by holding the current lines, Russia is making good on its protection of its friends, securing the long-term viability of its outpost in Crimea, and bleeding Ukraine further, making it increasingly likely that Ukraine will become a dysfunctional, impoverished state over the long term, without the capacity to be an effective base for NATO assets. Meanwhile, sanctions have not had nearly the impact on Russia’s economy that was hoped, and Russia’s large population, bolstered by millions of refugees from Ukraine, means that any demographic effects of the war on Russia are likely to be minuscule.
Putin is well aware that Russia can bear the losses of the war longer than Ukraine can. Even a costly victory is still a victory if Russia can keep its foothold. Eventually, the West may find its resolve wavering before Russia’s. On the present trajectory, Russia may end up holding onto its gains in spite of everything.
If the current offensive fails, and it begins to appear that a long-term stalemate is developing, Western countries will have to rethink their willingness to underwrite a war whose continuation is destroying the viability of Ukraine, while only helping Russia to cement the achievement of its strategic goals.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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