Founder & CEO of South Australian geopolitical think tank, SAGE International.
He is also
Of all the speculations on what is going on inside of wartime Russia, none is more pronounced than how it is conducting its war from a material perspective.
In the highly charged environment where pro-Russian and anti-Russian sentiment is being hotly contested in the court of global public opinion, there are some less polarised and more objective viewpoints based on what Russia is fielding and how it is being used. While it is true that Western/Ukrainian media have a particular bias, just as Russian state media is protecting Putin and his inner circle from domestic criticism, there are some things that are pretty hard to consistently fake.
Russian vehicle losses for one thing. And the impact of Western sanctions on Russia’s ability to build state-of-the-art equipment to replace wartime losses.
Now, some have suggested that Russia is leveraging off Iran and some Middle Eastern ‘fence sitting’ countries as a means of accessing dual-use equipment denied it by the West in open trade. How much bulk equipment of this type is getting through to Russian industries to allow them to churn out T-90 or Armata T-14 main battle tanks, Su-35 fighter planes, Kamov Ka-50 attack helicopters, domestically designed drones, missiles, precision-guided munitions and other semi-autonomous platforms is anybody’s guess. However, considering the sort of constraints Russia is facing and that countries that have given Moscow some rhetorical support are not keen on being targeted by secondary sanctions, one can reasonably deduce that critical parts for Russia’s defence industries are not coming through in war-winning quantities.
This of course could change if China were to openly support the Russians. However, Xi Jinping does not seem to be in a hurry to jump on the Russian war bandwagon. This would destroy the country’s profitable relationship with the West which is far more valuable to it than its relationship with Putin’s Russia. This is also a reality that those few remaining CCP pragmatists would remind Xi and his acolytes of as often as they could without jeopardising their lives or livelihoods. We might not like the Chinese regime, but thus far, it has proven calculating and cautious. This is a problem for the West since while we may speculate about the fate of that careless gambler in the Kremlin, the person sitting in the middle of the Middle Kingdom, so far, is a much more scrupulous operator with his eyes squarely on the future.
Russia’s Defence Industrialisation Program: The Cost to the People
The ongoing war in Ukraine has put Russia’s defence industrialisation program front and centre.
Putin’s regime is committed to the development and production of military hardware, and the war has given the country’s defence industry an opportunity to showcase its capabilities.
So far, these capabilities are proving less than stellar a year into the war.
Being unable to produce advanced chips and semiconductors, Russian defence industries have raided domestic appliances for these critical parts. The problem with washing machine and television chips and semiconductors is that they are not military specification rated. That is, they are not designed to endure the high-gravity environment faced by missiles and aircraft. Furthermore, because of their limited natures, these civilian chips and semiconductors were never designed to process information for complex military munitions and platforms. This limited form of on-the-fly Russian ‘systems integration’ therefore cannot produce anything other than inferior ‘smart’ weapons; Russia being effectively cut off from international supplies of advanced, military specification-rated chips and semiconductors. This comes at a high cost for Russian Army combatants using ‘near-enough’ technology. The less accurate missiles, guided shells and bombs are, the more have to be expended per target to guarantee the target’s damage or elimination. This obviously puts more upward pressure on the productive capacities of Russia’s defence industries.
Russia’s defence spending has increased substantially in recent years, and the country now spends more on defence than any other country except for the U.S. and China. The government has prioritised defence production over other areas of the economy, and this has come at the expense of the average Russian citizen. The impoverishment of the people has become a necessary sacrifice to save the regime – an inevitable part of Russia’s ongoing military operations at a time of heavy and comprehensive Western sanctions. While these sanctions have yet to have damaged Russia’s war industries, they certainly have taken a toll on the civilian economy.
Kinks in Russian military-industrial processes have meant that not enough drones and high-expenditure munitions are being manufactured, leading Moscow to become reliant on wartime ‘partners’ Iran and North Korea.
As both countries are belligerent states (i.e., anti-Western), with their own ongoing strategic issues requiring heightened preparation for conventional war, there will be limits to how much Tehran and Pyongyang can spare to support Russia’s war effort. Both Russia and Ukraine are going through munitions at rates not seen since World War II. Western backers of Ukraine are having problems supplying Kyiv with the quantities it requires to resist Russia. If the West is having problems, then the less developed economies of contemporary Iran and North Korea must be facing even steeper production and logistical challenges as their production capabilities, civilian and military, are a shadow of what the West can produce on a bad day.
Putin has been trading on the legend of the ‘stubborn nationalism’ of the Russian people to encourage them to sacrifice their lives and lifestyles for the sake of the regime. He has equated the war on Ukraine to the Great Patriotic War (WWII), which is not even remotely comparable. During WWII, for instance, the USSR benefited from cooperation with Western nations, and especially the Lend Lease programme. But Russia does not enjoy this sort of cooperation, even with its ‘no-limits’ friend, China.
To save domestic defence manufacturing, Putin will have to continue to cut spending on non-war-related aspects of the economy. This will lead to all sorts of chaos toward September 2023 as food and monetary shortages will lead middle-class Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg to take to the streets.
Impact of Western Sanctions and China’s Ambivalence
Western sanctions on Russia are not the perfect tool to constrain Russian actions. The ‘Global South‘ is ambivalent about the war, and the South’s most powerful economies, India and China, are prepared to exploit Russia’s desperation to buy Russian commodities at vastly reduced prices, thereby keeping the Russian economy afloat but not profitable.
The impact of Western sanctions on Russia will not be felt immediately, but their effects on the Russian economy and parts of the country’s war production will be felt over time.
Russia’s late northern winter offensive centred around Bakhmut appears anaemic, perhaps weakened through ongoing logistical issues. Splits are emerging between the Private Military Company, the Wagner Group, and the Russian Army over resource allocations. These might be temporary problems, but they indicate that the Russian war is far from a unifying phenomenon among the fighting elements of the Russian military. Furthermore, the middle classes and wealthy elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg have been relatively isolated from direct participation in the war. But as their ability to buy luxury goods (foreign or domestic) diminishes, and their long-term capacity to purchase basic staples like food and clothing erodes, will these Russians bear this ‘necessary sacrifice’ for the good of Vladimir Putin and the prosecution of his ‘war of choice’ against Ukraine? Ask an ultra-nationalist and they might say that no sacrifice for the Russian nation is too small. This would be a minority view. Ask an average citizen worried about his/her family’s future, the answer might be significantly different. These splits within Russia are likely to intensify so long as there is no true ‘return on investment’ for the blood and treasure already spent on this war. Arguably it is at this nexus that things within Russia become increasingly problematic. Autocrats often come to a time when whatever they do, they cannot arrest their decline. The hole they’ve dug for themselves becomes too deep and natural forces from below, such as popular restlessness and unease turn into something akin to popular, organised resistance to the regime.
The Future of the War in Ukraine
China’s peace overtures are unlikely to work. Neither Putin nor Zelensky believes the time for negotiations has come. However, if Xi abandons a Chinese peace initiative and begins supplying lethal aid to Russia, the Ukraine War becomes a true world war, with the Developed economies (the West) actively backing the Ukrainian government against the Russians actively or passively backed by a loose coalition of the Global South.
A new partial Russian mobilisation is expected sometime in 2023. If enough Russian soldiers can man defensive fortifications in occupied Ukraine without losing their positions, Russian numbers will count, making it unlikely that qualitatively superior Ukrainian forces can successfully break through and drive the Russians from their positions. At best, for the Russians, current occupied territory will be Russian by default, and Ukraine will be divided. In 2024, a Korean War-style armistice may be reached as both sides hit maximum exhaustion.
However, the only outlier is China.
If Russia is unable to keep its current territorial holdings in Ukraine in 2023, and the expected Ukrainian northern spring/summer offensive is realised with new Western equipment and trained personnel, Russia’s defeat will almost certainly spell the end of Putin’s regime in Moscow. In this scenario, and one that is not coherently or comprehensively covered in the public domain, the West will lose strategic control, Russia will lurch from crisis to crisis until a new strongman emerges in the Kremlin to restore order and China will, at least temporarily, lose a major international ally in Russia. A Xi Jinping without a friendly Vladimir Putin guarding China’s north-western frontier will be a strategic game changer. This, eventuality, more than anything else, might change the behaviour of Xi and the CCP to be less belligerent in Asia. But it will also make a ‘more co-operative’ and benign CCP a far more longer-lived entity and far harder for the U.S. and its allies to counter.
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